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Inedible Eggs: How Future Foodborne Illness Could Be Avoided

August 23, 2010 at 5:57 PM EDT
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After a salmonella outbreak led to more than half a billion eggs being recalled, the head of the Food and Drug Administration said new measures must be taken to ensure food safety laws are enforced to prevent future problems. Jeffrey Brown speaks with food safety expert Caroline Smith DeWaal and journalist Elizabeth Weise.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The largest egg recall in recent history continued to spread today, as the head of the Food & Drug Administration called for new tools to help her agency enforce safety laws and prevent future problems.

The nationwide outbreak of salmonella poisoning from contaminated eggs, including at least 1,300 cases, began in May. Investigators have linked the disease outbreak to two massive farms in Iowa, which in turn have ties to businessman Austin Jack DeCoster. He owns Wright County Egg and has financial and other associations with Hillandale Farms, the other firm cited in the recall. Over the last 15 years, his operations have been fined millions of dollars for major violations of health, immigration and workplace safety standards. One of his companies was cited just this past spring for animal cruelty at a farm in Maine.

Nonetheless (ph), it was not until this outbreak that DeCoster’s hen houses in Iowa were inspected by the Food & Drug Administration. Until a new law went into effect in early July, the FDA did not have authority to conduct such inspections.

MARGARET HAMBURG, FDA commissioner: This is the first major food safety issue that I’m aware of associated with his companies.

JEFFREY BROWN: On ABC this morning, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg pushed for further legislation now pending in Congress that would empower her agency to get out in front of cases like this.

MARGARET HAMBURG: There is an opportunity through this legislation to extend our authority, resources and other important tools to do trace-back of products, to make sure that companies have the appropriate preventive measures in place, and to enable us to review records in a routine way.

JEFFREY BROWN: Eggs are sold under an array of brand names but come from fewer and fewer farms, says Patty Lovera, a consumer watchdog.

PATTY LOVERA, Food & Water Watch: Sometimes big companies have lots of brands to make it look like there’s more operators than there really are. And so that’s why you’re seeing all of these brands in this recall.

JEFFREY BROWN: With cases of salmonella poisoning spreading, lawsuits are beginning to be filed. Bacteria can cause vomiting and flu-like symptoms, but it can lead to more serious health problems and in rare cases death. None has been reported thus far.

Attorney Drew Falkenstein has sued DeCoster on behalf of a young girl.

DREW FALKENSTEIN, attorney: She was hospitalized for a period of three or four days and incurred significant — significant, in the tens of thousands of dollars — in medical expenses.

JEFFREY BROWN:A spokesperson for DeCoster’s company Wright County Egg Company said the firm has worked quickly in the past to correct issues raised about its farms and intends to work with the FDA in a “forthright manner.”

And we turn to two people who watch food safety closely. Caroline Smith DeWaal is with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer watchdog group. Elizabeth Weise covers these issues for “USA Today.” Neither the FDA commissioner nor a representative from the egg industry was able to join us tonight.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, the particular farms seem to have been pinpointed, but what about the actual source or cause of the contamination? What do we know so far?

CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL, Center for Science in the Public Interest: Well, the investigation is still ongoing, but salmonella enteritidis is the strain of salmonella that actually infects the inside of the egg. Over the years we’ve known for a long time that salmonella can get on the outside of the egg just in the hen houses, but they’ve created systems of washing the eggs which have really addressed this. This particular strain of salmonella actually gets into the ovary, and from there it seeds the individual eggs as they’re being laid.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, Elizabeth Weise, what does that mean in terms of how one investigates the actual source of this? And who does the investigating?

ELIZABETH WEISE, “USA Today”: Well, in this instance it’s the FDA that does the investigation. And they said today in a conference call that one of the things they’re looking at is where these hens actually came from. It was interesting. The FDA said today that they now know that when you buy eggs, a company buys chicks from one company, they’re brought back to the farm. They’re raised up as pullets. They start laying around four or five months, and then they have got the rest of their laying life.

What’s interesting is the FDA now says they know that the chicks didn’t have salmonella enteritidis. They came from a farm that was certified salmonella enteritidis free. The FDA is now investigating the pullet farm which was owned by Wright Egg to see if those pullets had SE. And they’re also looking at the feed, because feed is another way that it can come in. It can also just come into the hen house from rodents, from insects.

But this appears to be a pretty large outbreak, so perhaps it was actually something that was coming in all the hens that were coming into the laying house.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. So before we go back and look at how this happened, or the regulations in play, Caroline Smith DeWaal, help consumers at home. In the meantime, what should they be doing?

CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL: The bottom line for consumers is if you have these recalled eggs in your refrigerator, you need to either throw them out or return them to where you bought them. We’re not recommending that consumers eat these eggs. Now, generally we advise consumers to eat eggs fully cooked , to make sure that you take special precautions, especially with your high-risk consumers — your children, your elderly parents, or anyone who is immune compromised.

JEFFREY BROWN: Because in theory, ,usually the cooking would get rid of it.

CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL: That’s right. Cooking should get rid of salmonella. But occasionally, with very highly contaminated eggs, it might even come through in a cooked egg or a lightly cooked egg. So we really recommend that you get rid of these eggs. Don’t try to cook them .

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Elizabeth Weise, now we said the signs of this first go back to May. So– but it didn’t really burst into a major recall until fairly recently.

What happened in the meantime? How does the system work, or how is it supposed to work?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Well, the way this happens is the Centers for Disease Control is always tracking how many cases of salmonella enteritidis there are in the country. And about mid-May, they actually started to see a rise in those numbers. Actually, it wasn’t even the CDC. It was the states. Minnesota especially, which has excellent public health, started to see this rise, and they were able to go back and say, hey, suddenly we’ve got four times as many cases of this disease as we should , just as part of the general background.

So they said, OK, what’s going on? And the easiest way to track back on a big food safety outbreak like this is to look for restaurant clusters, because you can find a group of people who all got sick at a restaurant. You go interview them, you figure out what they ate that made them sick. And then you can kind of backtrack from there, where did the restaurant get that particular food?

In this case that’s what happened. It was actually — they had seen it in May, they started tracking in June, July. They went to a couple of restaurants that had a number of people sickened, figured out where those eggs came from, and were able to get back to the Iowa farms.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Caroline Smith DeWaal, in that timeline she mentioned July. New guidelines came into place in July, right?

CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL: We had been waiting for these regulations for 10 years, Jeff. These are regulations. They had been subject to pilot studies, risk assessments. They were strongly science-based regulations, but they had been languishing at the Department of Health and Human Services throughout the entire Bush administration.

So these regulations finally came on line in July 2010. They were made final a year before the industry had an entire year to comply. And the regulations really have three simple parts.

The first is that all the chickens, the hens that are brought into the house have to be from these farms that are certified as SE-free.

Second, that you have biosecurity measures to keep those rodents or insects out so that they don’t actually contaminate hens once they’re already in the barns.

And then most importantly, they have a requirement that all the farms, all the barns, actually be tested environmentally for salmonella enteritidis. And if it’s found, they then test the eggs.

JEFFREY BROWN: Would you expect that to prevent something like this in the future, or at least the idea is to make it less likely?

CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL: It absolutely should prevent these types of outbreaks. And at a minimum, it should give the farms themselves an early warning that they’ve got a problem with salmonella enteritidis, because where it is found in the eggs, they would have to be diverted from the shell egg market. They wouldn’t be sold as shell eggs.

JEFFREY BROWN: And Elizabeth, we saw this happen amid a gather at consolidation of the egg industry. We’re talking about two farms here, but many brands that spread across the nation.

ELIZABETH WEISE: Well, these two farms, all told, were probably responsible for one percent or less of U.S. egg consumption, which is about 77 billion eggs a year. That’s still a lot for two farms.

We certainly have seen consolidation. You don’t just have farmers with, you know, a flock of 20 chickens here and 20 chickens there. You have farms that are producing billions of eggs over the course of a month.

The question is whether that consolidation is really a risk factor for salmonella. And you’ll find people on both sides of that who will argue the case that either having it be at large places where you can actually do really good biocontrol is more safe, you have people who would argue that having many small farms is more safe. I don’t think we know the answer to that yet.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Elizabeth, tell us then about what FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg brought up today, the legislation that sits before Congress now. What would it do?

ELIZABETH WEISE: Well, interestingly, because we now have the egg rule in place, it would affect eggs less than other things. The place it’s going to be strongest I think is on leafy greens, and we of course had the issue with spinach a couple of years back. But what it does is it gives FDA more regulatory clout, it gives them the right to do mandatory recalls. And at this point, FDA can only ask for a voluntary recall on the part of food producers.

So, in General, it just gives them a lot more power, and it would also give them some more funding, because they’re going to be out doing investigations, do testing. And testing costs money because people cost money.

JEFFREY BROWN: And just briefly, Caroline Smith DeWaal, does it now look like that would come back with a better chance to pass because of all of this, or what’s the state of play?

CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL: The legislation is poised to go to the floor of the Senate in September. It’s urgently needed to address problems like this. It would improve inspection tremendously by giving them a mandate to inspect high-risk facilities like this much more frequently.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

Caroline Smith DeWaal and Elizabeth Weise, thank you both very much.

CAROLINE SMITH DEWAAL: Thank you.

ELIZABETH WEISE: Thanks so much.