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As egg producers consolidate, problems of just one company can be far-reaching
Although it has broad authority to regulate the production of food, the FDA historically has inspected egg-laying facilities only if it suspected contamination, said Farrar. That is likely to change under a new agency rule that took effect in July. And food safety legislation pending on Capitol Hill would require the FDA to routinely inspect high-risk food facilities, including henhouses.
Under a long-standing regulatory divide, the USDA regulates the health of the chickens, not the eggs they produce. The agency has visited the producers at the heart of the outbreak, but only to grade the quality of their eggs as part of a voluntary program, according to USDA spokesman Caleb Weaver. Quality graders visit packaging facilities, not laying houses, Weaver said.
And while some states inspect farms and egg-laying facilities -- and several conduct vigorous inspection programs -- Iowa, the leading egg-producing state, does not, said Dustin Vande Hoef, spokesman for the state's agriculture department . "Clearly this is a tragic situation, but two federal agencies have been given the responsibility to ensure food safety and we count on them in that regard," Vande Hoef wrote in an e-mail.
Under legislation that has passed in the House and is expected to be taken up by the Senate in September, the FDA would be required to visit Wright County Egg and other similar producers annually. It would have access to internal company documents that show results of microbial testing and the company would be required to adopt a strategy to prevent contamination and prove that it follows the strategy. The bill also would require companies to keep uniform distribution records, making it easier and faster for the FDA to track contaminated food.
"This is a patchwork of government programs where everyone can point to someone else who they thought was doing the job," DeWaal said. "This debate over who regulates the hens and the eggs has been going on for 20 years. The bottom line is, these laying houses should be regulated."
Salmonella enteritidis infections can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea and fever. The illness can be briefly severe but is rarely life-threatening. In people with depressed immune systems, such as AIDS patients, however, salmonella can cause fatal bloodstream infections. No deaths have been reported in the ongoing national investigation but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention thinks that tainted eggs have sickened at least 1,300 people since May.
On Monday, the House Energy and Commerce Committee launched an investigation into the tainted eggs. Farrar said that about 20 FDA microbiologists and inspectors have been dispatched to the two Iowa plants. So far, microbial testing has not confirmed the presence of Salmonella enteritidis in either facility, but the agency is awaiting the results of further tests, he said.
If anything were to slow or reverse the consolidation of the egg industry, it would be a massive, costly recall, said economist Otto. "This might do it."