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Food Safety Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

SPH professor on egg recall and U.S. regulations

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Almost 1,500 people have become ill from eggs with salmonella since the middle of August, resulting in the recall of 550 million eggs. Photo by Woodley Wonderworks

Since mid-August, 550 million salmonella-tainted eggs—a number exceeding the population of the United States—have been recalled from the market by two giant Iowa farms, following the salmonella poisoning of almost 1,500 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has yet to identify the cause of the outbreak. However, signs of the particular bacterial strain, salmonella enteritidis, have emerged in barns and feed found at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, the outbreak’s sources. FDA investigators recently discovered live rodents, maggots, animal feces, and buildings with holes allowing access to wildlife at both facilities.

This recent scare is the largest national outbreak associated with salmonella enteritidis. The crisis, a serious cause for concern in itself, also points to the helter-skelter way food safety is regulated in the United States. The FDA is responsible for regulating eggs in their shells, but regulating chickens, the grading of eggs, and all liquid egg products is the province of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Neither government agency has the power to issue a product recall, relying solely on producers to do so voluntarily.

BU Today spoke with Wendy Heiger-Bernays, a School of Public Health associate professor of environmental health, about the recent outbreak and the state of food safety regulation in the United States.

BU Today: How do eggs become carriers of salmonella?
Heiger-Bernays:
Most of the salmonella cases prior to this were due to a different strain present on the eggshell. When you crack the egg, it falls through these cracks and you end up with salmonella in the egg itself.

We’re not exactly certain how those chickens in Iowa became infected. There is some normal low-level presence of salmonella in this particular strain in chickens, but the FDA and USDA have identified at least some contamination through molecular markers in the feed. These farms seem to have created their own feed. We know there’s bone meal in there, and we know that there’s likely contamination by fecal matter from rodents or from the chickens.

This strain, salmonella enteritidis, infects the ovaries of the hens so that the eggs are contaminated from the get-go. As the egg forms, the bacteria is already in the egg. It’s not just the shell. You’re now looking at a probably higher concentration of bacteria.

Have any salmonella cases been reported in Massachusetts?
No, not yet. The state now will be more actively conducting surveillance. What we know now is that there don’t appear to be eggs in the Boston area that are part of this recall.

What can people do to prevent salmonella poisoning?
They can cook their eggs. It’s that same old food safety that your mother told you. Wash your hands, cooking utensils, and food surfaces with soap and water before you prepare food. Refrigerate foods that need refrigeration and cook them.

Does buying organic or locally raised eggs eliminate the chance of salmonella?
The organic definition or certification really has to do with feed and not with the housing or the treatment of hens. It has to do with whether the feed is from sources that lack herbicides or pesticides. Salmonella can happen with organically grown eggs as well. I don’t have the data on this, but so far there haven’t been any local hens that have been infected. No cases of disease have been traced back to local, backyard eggs.

Why are eggs regulated by both the FDA and the USDA?
This division happens with all sorts of agriculturally derived products. The USDA has traditionally been the agency that has overseen agriculture. The FDA really came online with the first food safety bill.

Part of the power goes back to the roots of the USDA in terms of our agriculture origins. Farmers and the suppliers of feed, medications, and products really are very powerful lobbies. There’s a lot of desire to remain independent from the FDA, claiming that the FDA knows drugs, but doesn’t know how to raise chickens. But it is the Food and Drug Administration.

There’s an expression: the USDA is essentially the fox guarding the henhouse.

What needs to be done to bolster the FDA’s ability to prevent such outbreaks?
We need to revisit the entire program. Right now it’s patchwork. You’ve got local health departments able to do some regulation. Then you have state regulations. Then you have federal regulations—from the USDA, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the FDA—and many arms of each of these organizations.

What we don’t have is a comprehensive look at our food supply today. We are working on a food supply system that was first regulated back in 1910, and we just keep patching.

It’s very interesting because the initial response of people to this outbreak was, we have to sterilize, we have to pasteurize, we have to irradiate. Unfortunately, we respond to what the health issue is by dealing with it in an immediate response, but we’re not going back and asking, why are those eggs contaminated, and how are we going to prevent them from becoming contaminated? That’s not happening.

The CDC first detected signs of this outbreak in early July. Why weren’t people informed earlier?
Up through May for this particular strain there were maybe 150 or so cases identified. But there is always some normal level of disease reporting for this strain. The numbers were not much higher, maybe 20 cases higher, than would have been seen under normal circumstances. It really wasn’t until late June or early July that we started to see this rise.

New rules by the Obama administration requiring egg producers to conduct more salmonella testing went into effect in July. Should these eggs have been caught under the new regulations?
You can have the best regulation in the world, but if no one is enforcing it, it’s not going to work. President George W. Bush was extremely efficient at eliminating the enforcement arm of the USDA during his first term. There are no inspectors. If you look at the numbers that are coming out now, you’ll see the infrequency with which the USDA actually will inspect a facility. They’ll fine, but there’s no enforcement to go back and collect those fines.

A new food safety bill has been percolating in both houses of Congress, but critics doubt it will be passed anytime soon. What’s the delay?
I think it’s simply that our legislators and their constituents don’t want more regulations. Nobody wants to be the legislator who says, I want to put in more regulations and I want to raise the cost of food at this time. What’ll happen is, they’ll be out tomorrow.

Leslie Friday can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu; follow her on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

2 Comments

2 Comments on Food Safety Not All It’s Cracked Up to Be

  • Anonymous on 09.03.2010 at 8:42 am

    Like father like son

    re: “President George W. Bush was extremely efficient at eliminating the enforcement arm of the USDA during his first term. There are no inspectors. ”

    George Bush Sr. eliminated well over half of the USDA inspectors during his terms in office. This family exhibited a very un-american lack of respect for human life and health through their entire public careers.

    Unless the ‘businessmen’ who made the decisions that poisoned 1500 people are held criminally liable, we need inspectors and prosecutors to protect average americans from run-away greed.

    We have the best foxes the owners of the henhouse can buy. I advise holding the foxes and owners PERSONALLY accountable.

  • S. Tree on 09.06.2010 at 5:47 pm

    Food Safety Politics

    Unfortunately, politics and agendas are having far too much impact on our food safety and our health. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.

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