Millions of Americans suffer from foodborne illness each year. Michael Batz, head of food safety programs at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, calculates the cost of salmonella-contaminated eggs at $370 million a year. Salmonellosis is an infection that causes diarrhea, fever and stomach cramps. Batz factors in missed work, medical bills, victims’ assessments of how their illness harmed them (called “quality-adjusted life”) and premature deaths. The non-monetary loss is also substantial. An estimated 115,000 people suffer this type of food poisoning each year, resulting in 42 fatalities, according to his estimates.
Spending two-tenths of a penny per dozen eggs to protect consumers may not sound like much, but it adds up in an industry that produces 90 billion eggs each year. It’s an example of the costbenefit calculation companies make as they consider implementing new food safety measures.
Profits for egg farmers are small. And with lax regulations, some producers cut corners rather than invest in sanitation. Consumers, meanwhile, have little information about who supplies the eggs stacked in their grocery store coolers.
New federal rules, based on the Pennsylvania program, are the first safety measures required of egg producers. The rules, which went into effect in July 2010 for large producers (about 80 percent of the industry), followed a decades-long discussion that began after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention first traced salmonella to eggs in 1986.
FDA funding in peril
The new federal rules initially specified that the Food and Drug Administration would inspect egg farms annually, but that was later reduced to once every three years. When inspections began in September 2010, the FDA announced it would visit 600 facilities by January 2012. Only 35 farms were reviewed in the first four months because, the FDA said, the agency initially targeted only the highest-risk farms with histories of violations, requiring intensive, time-consuming inspections. At that rate, initial inspections won’t conclude until the end of 2014, nearly three years behind schedule. The FDA declined to say how many inspections have been completed since the first four months, but an FDA spokeswoman said the program was on pace to meet the deadline.
Nor have reports been filed on all of the completed inspections. Twelve of 35 reports are unfinished because inspectors were called away to cover outbreaks associated with sprouts and cheese, according to the FDA’s Web site.