Salmonella-tainted eggs linked to U.S. government's failure to act
Saturday, December 11, 2010; 12:00 AM
Public health officials closed the books this month on an outbreak of salmonella illness that had sickened more than 1,900 people since May and led to the largest recall of eggs in U.S. history.
Two Iowa egg farms drew most of the blame, triggering a congressional investigation, a federal criminal probe and several lawsuits filed by victims.
What has not drawn much scrutiny is the role of the federal government, which recognized 20 years ago that salmonella in eggs posed a public health threat. Although federal inspectors have closely monitored meat and poultry production for the better part of a century, they have largely ignored eggs, another staple of the American diet. It was not until July, well after the recent outbreak was underway, that the government's first rules on safe egg production took effect.
Unlike other regulatory efforts, this one did not sputter under lobbying pressure by business. In fact, the $4.4 billion egg industry had been seeking mandatory rules for years, despite the red tape and extra costs. Consumer groups wanted the regulation, and public health experts supported it, along with economists who said the benefits would far outweigh the costs.
But the proposal was thwarted by government itself - philosophical resistance to regulating business as well as rivalries and dysfunction at two federal agencies that share responsibility for keeping egg production safe.
Fractured oversight remains a problem today. There are more than 15 federal agencies and 71 interagency agreements dealing with food safety. Experts in public health and government accountability say that fragmentation weakens oversight, wastes tax dollars through redundancy and creates dangerous gaps.
Balkanization was a key factor in the government's failure to regulate eggs over the past two decades. The push for federal rules on egg production stalled in the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations as the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture dug into their own silos. It collapsed when the George W. Bush administration brought a renewed skepticism about regulation to the executive branch.
"The system certainly was at its worst," said Lester Crawford, a former FDA commissioner whose own bout with salmonella in 1986 turned the issue into a personal battle.
Crawford pushed for egg regulation while running the food safety program at the USDA from 1987 to 1991, and he said he was stunned by the lack of progress when he joined FDA as acting deputy commissioner in 2002.
"I went nuts. I was told it was ready to go and all we needed to do was say yes, so I said yes," Crawford said. He kept up the fight through 2005, when he left the agency.
Mark McClellan, who was FDA commissioner from 2002 to 2004, also supported egg regulation, but he said the proposal moved slowly because of its complexity and competing priorities.
"It was farm-to-table regulation, so there was lots to consider," he said. "It was going to affect the trucking industry, storage, food production, and small and large farms. . . . Then there was the issue of priorities. . . . It's not like one particular public health issue is unimportant, but with limited resources, you have to focus effort."