By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010; 9:49 PM
Federal investigators found piles of manure up to eight feet tall, live mice, pigeons and other birds inside the hen houses at two egg farms suspected of causing a nationwide outbreak of salmonella illness, officials said Monday.
Investigators made public their observations of Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, two massive egg producers who have recalled nearly 500 million eggs since Aug. 13.
Salmonella enteritidis is a bacterium that lives in animal intestines, is often present in feces and can be spread by mice, birds, flies and other organisms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that at least 1,400 people have been sickened since May by eating eggs contaminated by the bacteria. It is the largest outbreak of the disease since federal officials began tracking it in the 1970s.
During their inspection of the two Iowa farms in the past two weeks, FDA investigators have documented multiple unsanitary conditions that may have caused eggs to be contaminated.
They found dead maggots and live flies that crunched under foot at Wright County Egg, where the FDA also documented a hen house bulging from manure.
Investigators made numerous observations about holes in buildings or gaps in structures, which can allow rodents, pigeons and other animals to enter hen houses. On several occasions, investigators saw live rodents running through hen houses at both farms.
At Hillandale Farms, laboratory tests confirmed the presence of Salmonella enteritidis in water used to wash eggs before they are packaged, said Jeff Farrar, FDA associate commissioner for food protection.
In a written statement, Julie DeYoung, a spokeswoman for Hillandale, said the company was working to address the concerns raised by the FDA and restore consumer confidence. "Regarding the positive finding [of salmonella] in the egg wash water, it is important to note that after washing, all the eggs are rinsed with water containing chlorine as an additional sanitation step," she wrote.
FDA officials said Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms appeared to violate federal regulations for egg safety that took effect July 9, as well as voluntary industry standards for sanitation. Company officials have said they were in compliance.
In a statement, Wright County Egg said the company was addressing the shortcomings identified by the FDA and is committed to making all needed repairs by mid-September.
"Our team has worked around the clock to address concerns that were raised verbally during FDA's inspection, with many of those being fixed as soon as they were identified," the statement said. "To date, the vast majority of the concerns identified in the FDA report already have been addressed through repairs or other corrective measures. We anticipate the expeditious completion of nearly all remaining items by mid-September."
FDA officials said Thursday that it was premature to discuss whether sanctions will be taken against the two companies, which have agreed to stop selling eggs until the FDA gives permission. Until then, they are shipping eggs to a processor where they are pasteurized to kill any bacteria and then used in liquid egg products or processed foods.
Michael R. Taylor, deputy FDA commissioner for foods, said the agency will begin inspecting 600 egg-production facilities over the next 15 months to make sure they are complying with new federal rules.
The FDA had never inspected Wright County Egg or Hillandale Farms, according to Farrar.
"Obviously, something was going wrong here," said Erik Olson, deputy director at the Pew Health Group, referring to the conditions at the farms found by federal inspectors. "The question is whether we can be assured this is not the case at any of these other [egg] laying houses. I don't think FDA is in a position to answer and it just highlights how badly we need an inspection mandate in federal law. Until you have a cop on the beat checking if you've got compliance, things can go awry."