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All Things Considered: October 2010

An American Tale


September 22, 2010
By Jim Knisley


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If there was a need for a reminder on the necessity to ensure food
safety, a couple of large egg farms in Iowa have provided it. The two
farms produced, released and then recalled more than half a billion eggs
because they were contaminated or potentially contaminated with Salmonella Enteritidis.

If there was a need for a reminder on the necessity to ensure food safety, a couple of large egg farms in Iowa have provided it. The two farms produced, released and then recalled more than half a billion eggs because they were contaminated or potentially contaminated with Salmonella Enteritidis.

The recall occurred after hundreds or perhaps thousands of people became ill after eating eggs from the farms. The farms themselves are being held directly and primarily responsible for producing and selling tainted eggs that made people sick.

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Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), said in a television interview: “There is no question that these farms that are involved in the recall were not operating with the standards of practice that we consider responsible.” But the farms aren't the only ones tagged with responsibility.

As can be expected, animal rights advocates seized the moment to further their campaign against cages and condemn standard practices in much of the egg industry.

“Confining birds in cages means increased salmonella infection in the birds, their eggs and the consumers of caged eggs,” the Humane Society of the United States wrote in a letter to Iowa egg producers. But responsibility is being cast far beyond the farm. For example, the New York Times said: "Federal officials also must take the rap for moving too slowly to strengthen the country’s food safety system."

The salmonella outbreak came as the United States  began introducing new egg safety rules, requiring farmers to buy chicks and young hens only from suppliers who test for salmonella, put in place rodent and pest control to prevent the spread of bacteria, test barns for salmonella and test samples of their eggs. If a test is positive, the eggs must be treated or disposed of to ensure the safety of food is maintained.

Food safety experts believe the new rules to be sound. The problem is they came into effect too late to prevent the current outbreak. Another problem is that it took the United States government a decade to decide which responsibilities should rest with the Department of Agriculture (USDA), and which should fall to the FDA. The Times also says politicians must share in the responsibility.

"Even strong rules are of little use if they are not fully enforced. Congress will also need to provide sufficient resources so that the agency can conduct frequent inspections to ensure compliance," The Times said.

The Daily Non Pareil in Council Bluffs, Iowa agreed, saying, "Congress must demand – and fund – better food inspection."

The paper also points out how disjointed the current system is in the United States, with the FDA responsible for inspections of shell eggs while the USDA is in charge of inspecting other egg products. Another problem is that the FDA is, by law, limited to a mostly reactive stance on food safety. The agency has argued, most often unsuccessfully, that it needs to have the authority to focus more on prevention.

“We need better abilities and authorities to put in place these preventive controls and hold companies accountable,” Hamburg told CBS News.

Writing in The Hill, a Washington, D.C. publication that focuses on U.S. national politics, Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest took dead aim at the politicians.

"The resulting recall of over half a billion eggs is just the latest example of a broken food safety system," she wrote.

The "outbreak is a tale of two delays: One in adopting needed egg-safety regulations, and the second was Congressional inaction in modernizing food safety legislation. Faster action on either might have prevented this outbreak."

The egg regulation was 20 years in development, she wrote, but spent years in limbo as the federal agencies debated and the U.S. administration and Congress dallied.

The Bush administration practiced "active neglect," even though the new rules were supported by science and necessary to protect consumers. But simply getting the rule in place won't be sufficient to prevent a reoccurrence of this summer's tainted egg outbreak. The U.S. Senate has been sitting on legislation to provide the FDA with the resources it needs to enforce food safety regulations. The salmonella outbreak has likely provided even the most anti-regulation senator with all the incentive needed to move the legislation forward.

While this is entirely an American story, Canadian farmers may be affected. Some Canadian consumers may wrongly conclude that an egg is an egg, and eggs can make you sick. The industry and government will have to ensure that that conclusion is effectively countered.

The American story also demonstrates, once again, how important it is for farmers and companies to have a strong and effective commitment to food safety. But it must go beyond that, because if something goes wrong, consumers will hold the industry as a whole and the government responsible.


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