By Lyndsey Layton
Wednesday, September 15, 2010; A2
The Iowa egg farm linked to a national outbreak of salmonella illness found the bacterium in its facilities hundreds of times in the past two years, according to records released by congressional investigators.
Salmonella was detected in 426 samples taken by Wright County Egg inside its egg facilities between Sept. 4, 2008, and July 26, 2010. The samples were analyzed by Iowa State University's diagnostic laboratory.
The laboratory results were obtained by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which is investigating the outbreak and subsequent recall of 500 million eggs, a record number.
Of those positive test results, 73 may have been salmonella enteritidis, the particular strain of the bacterium involved in the outbreak that has sickened at least 1,519 people since May 1.
Further testing of the samples was necessary to confirm the particular strain of salmonella, but investigators had no evidence that additional analysis was performed.
The presence of bacteria inside a farm facility does not necessarily mean the eggs are infected, and it is unclear whether Wright County Egg violated good industry practices or new federal egg rules, which took effect in July.
Between 2008 and 2010, the company appeared to test its facilities every month or two, frequently detecting salmonella.
In a letter sent Tuesday to Austin DeCoster, owner of Wright County Egg, Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) called the records "disturbing."
"We ask that you come prepared to explain why your facilities tested potentially positive for Salmonella Enteritidis contamination on so many occasions, what steps you took to address the contamination identified in these test results, and whether you shared these results with FDA or other federal or state food safety officials," Waxman wrote to DeCoster.
DeCoster has been asked to testify before the panel next Tuesday at a hearing on the egg recall..
Wright County Egg released a statement Tuesday that said it is committed to cooperating with investigators and that it will release documents as soon as they are available.
"We believe our open communication about our forthright efforts to compile testing data and provide documents as requested is consistent with our ongoing cooperation with this investigation," the company said. "We have provided the Committee with additional testing documentation today and will continue to do so as we restore past testing records."
Federal laws do not require egg producers to notify the Food and Drug Administration if they detect salmonella in their facilities.
But under the new egg rules, a producer who finds salmonella inside a hen house or packing facility cannot sell shell eggs from that facility unless they are tested to determine if they, too, are contaminated. It is unclear whether DeCoster tested the eggs in the facilities where salmonella was detected or whether those eggs were sold to consumers.
It is also not known what steps, if any, Wright County Egg took to clean its facilities after learning about contamination.
A spokeswoman for the committee declined to say how investigators obtained the internal test results.
In the letter to DeCoster, Waxman noted that the company did not notify the committee about the 73 tests that indicated potential contamination with Salmonella Enteritidis.
"The Committee wrote you to ask you to provide 'documents sufficient to show the dates and results of all instances of monitoring or analysis that yielded a positive finding for microbiological testing,'" Waxman wrote. "Despite the Committee's specific request, your response . . . did not include the 73 potentially positive results for Salmonella Enteritidis."
Both the Justice Department and the FDA have launched a criminal investigation into the distribution of the contaminated eggs.
On Monday, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) filed a bill that would strengthen criminal penalties for individuals who knowingly send contaminated food onto the marketplace. It would allow prosecutors to seek prison sentences of up to 10 years for those found guilty.