by Gary Glen, Contributing Author
I’m Ready to Egg Someone!
The recent egg recall of over a half a billion eggs that are linked to at least 1,520 reported illnesses is just the most recent recall that has left me scratching my head, as well as outraged.
Every party involved in maintaining the public’s safety has let the people down, miserably! I can almost understand the negligence from the business owner. Since the beginning of time, unscrupulous business owners have preyed on the consumer for their personal gain rather than consumer safety. It is no surprise that these egg producers would rather protect their bottom line instead of the consumer. Isn’t this where government regulation is suppose to step in?
The government. Well, that right there explains a lot. Consumers and many large egg buyers assumed that eggs with the USDA inspected seal is a sign of safety. Nope, that’s not how it works.
The USDA’s job is to grade eggs, check their condition and catch any defects. They don’t check hen houses, barns, overall cleanliness or review the farm’s salmonella prevention programs. That falls under the responsibility of the FDA. “It’s not the inspectors’ job to go into hen houses and see whether a farm is guarding against salmonella contamination”, said Sam Jones-Ellard, a spokesman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service. “Under the USDA’s unwritten interpretation of the regulations, egg graders look for vermin only inside the processing building where they work”, said Dean Kastner, an assistant USDA branch chief in the poultry grading program.
OK, where was the FDA then? The Food and Drug Administration released reports documenting filthy conditions in and around egg-laying barns at the two companies responsible for the egg recall, including rodents and rodent holes. Only after the recall. I wonder what them boys were up to before the recall. To top things off, did you know the FDA only imposed its first salmonella-prevention rules for eggs in July? Correct me if my math is wrong, but wasn’t that about a month before the salmonella outbreak? Well, I suppose several months of regulation interpretation were required.
The next missing person report is for the buyer’s inspectors. Every large supermarket, industrial buyer and egg broker have their own inspectors who source the quality of their purchase. Where were they? A spokesperson from Costco said that their inspectors were focused on ensuring that the hens were handled humanely. How stellar of them. The same spokesman mentioned that Costco’s inspections are done by an outside firm. Great! Another finger in the pie.
If this all sounds confusing to you, don’t feel alone! I’m right behind you. Let’s review. First, we have the owners of the egg farms who don’t give a rat’s ass about consumer safety which is evident by the government’s report on the rodent infestation. We then have the USDA inspectors whose eyes are only trained to judge the size of eggs, but not filth. Then the FDA shows up about a day late and a dollar short, after the outbreak. Even if the wing nuts had shown up before the outbreak, they had no plan. At least a plan that they fully understood. Of course, the last line of defense was the source inspectors…the “outside” firm. Hiring the visually impaired is an honorable thing, just not for egg inspection.
Is it government bureaucracy that is spinning its wheels? Is someone in someone else’s pocket? I don’t know. I know this shouldn’t be so complicated.
How could all these people have missed filth and rodents? Had someone actually died, would they all be co-conspirators in negligent homicide indictment? Here’s a few other scary tidbits…
1. The USDA employees do inspect conditions in packing facilities for companies that request and pay for the service. The packing facilities at Hillandale in West Union and at four more farms operated by Wright County Egg had all been audited by the USDA in 2009 or 2010 and received stellar marks – grades of 97 to 99 percent.
2. Carol Tucker-Foreman, a food policy fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, said egg graders view the companies – not consumers – as their “clients.” The graders are in USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which promotes industry products.
3. U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro, chairwoman of the House agriculture appropriations subcommittee, last month sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack asking, among other things, about the egg graders’ awareness of conditions at Wright County Egg. She’s still waiting for answers.
4. Vilsack told USA Today that the USDA “has been working to close gaps and improve the safety of the meat, poultry and processed egg products over which we have authority, and the FDA is taking action to address the fact that they have not had all of the tools needed to prevent outbreaks in areas where they have authority, such as shell eggs.”
So, what solutions to this madness have been initiated?
1. Costco’s spokesperson said it will start requiring all of its suppliers to vaccinate their hens against salmonella. Inoculating hens is considered a good, though not foolproof, way to prevent salmonella contamination in eggs. I assume other large buyers may initiate a similar requirement.
2. The FDA will inspect 600 major egg farms around the country over the next 15 months, but it hasn’t decided how frequently the farms will be rechecked to make sure they stay in compliance. That will depend on what the agency finds in its first round of inspections, a spokeswoman said. Bills in Congress would expand the FDA’s food safety authority.
3. Some retailers or food service companies are considering requiring egg farms to have salmonella-prevention measures in place, and more farms are expected to seek certification under a quality-assurance program operated by the Food Marketing Institute, a supermarket trade group.
At this point, all we can do is hope. Is everyone involved just blowing smoke? Once this thing leaves the headlines, will things revert back to the old ways? When and what will be recalled next?
As consumers, about all we can do is bitch at our legislators and get involved with, and closely follow and support food safety activists. Until the next recall…eat well.