Lessons in the egg recall

Our view: It's past time to get tough on food safety

August 30, 2010

Marylanders were fortunate to dodge the latest salmonella scare. The tainted eggs that came from two Iowa egg producers did not find their way into Mid-Atlantic markets. Last week, the Maryland Department of Agriculture said that its inspectors had found none of the affected eggs in the state.

Still, it is disconcerting that, as reported by The Washington Post, an Iowa egg farmer in the center of the current recall, Austin " Jack" DeCoster, ran a troubled egg operation in Kent County in early 1990s. When Maryland officials tried to shut down the egg-laying facility, which was contaminated with salmonella, Mr. DeCoster successfully sued in federal court, arguing that the state did not have the right to stop him from selling eggs — even tainted ones — across state lines. Maryland was, however, able to prevent him from selling eggs from that facility within the state. Mr. DeCoster eventually sold the operation and moved out of state.

In that instance, the state was watching the henhouse, while the federal authorities were less than vigilant. Years later, that failure of oversight is still painfully apparent.

The fact that a half-billion eggs shipped to 14 states had to be recalled in recent weeks does not make us feel sunny about the safety of our nation's food supply. The egg industry thought it had virtually eliminated the threat of salmonella in its product. Now it is has returned, on the front burner.

Eggs thus join the swelling ranks of favorite American foods that have been struck by salmonella and other harmful bacteria in recent years. They include tomatoes, peanuts, lettuce and frozen hamburger patties.

Several factors contribute to this worrisome situation. One is consolidation within the food industry; eggs are a prime example of this phenomenon. Fewer producers and massive egg-laying houses increase the opportunities both for an outbreak and for tainted eggs to find their way into the nation's food supply. Buying local eggs, even if they cost much more, looks increasingly appealing.

Then there is the "hunt and peck" nature of oversight. The Food and Drug Administration is charged with looking out for the safety of eggs in their shells. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, on the other hand, regulates the health of chickens. State officials, as seen in the DeCoster lawsuit, have limited powers.

Federal inspectors have recently descended on the Iowa egg houses, but their inspections began after the outbreak. The inspectors learned there was trouble when another federal agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, detected an increase in salmonella cases. Clearly, this after-the-fact approach is not the best way to assure confidence in the food supply.

Optimists say that egg safety is bound to improve. They point out that new regulations that went into effect last month — although too late to affect the recent outbreak — will require routine monitoring of both chickens and eggs for salmonella. We are not so sure. Reportedly, many egg producers were already voluntarily following the new guidelines, and yet half a billion eggs were recalled.

Vaccination of chickens against salmonella, a tactic that, according to report in The New York Times, has yielded a profound drop in the bacteria in eggs in Britain, looks like a good idea. It should be mandatory. Vaccinate the chicken and chances are good you won't have unhealthy eggs.

There is legislation stuck in the U.S. Senate that would give the FDA more resources and authority — the power, for instance, to mandate recalls, not just request them. The Senate should pass this bill. Right now what we have is not just a few bad eggs, but a bad food safety system.

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