A year ago, the recall of half a billion eggs laid in Iowa made national news headlines. But if you thought that federal or Iowa government agencies would take meaningful steps to reduce the chance of another salmonella enteritidis outbreak in egg factories, guess again.
The Des Moines Register requested U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports on all inspections of Iowa’s egg producers completed in 2011. Even though the FDA “withheld an undisclosed number of reports in their entirety” and blacked out some pages in many other reports, investigative reporter Clark Kauffman found enough material for this depressing story in the Sunday Des Moines Register:
Inspections at egg farms are announced days in advance – in some cases on dates proposed by the egg producers themselves – and they are still based partly on the honor system, with government officials doing little on-site testing for salmonella. Federal inspectors review the companies’ self-reported, in-house test results, even though the laboratories that perform those tests are not required to be licensed or accredited.
Penalties for health and safety violations that could lead to salmonella poisoning are nonexistent at both the state and federal levels. The federal Food and Drug Administration says it has never fined or closed down any egg-production facilities in the United States.
Federal food-safety laws that take effect next year will apply only to those farms that have 3,000 or more hens, leaving dozens of Iowa egg producers largely unregulated. For example, an egg farm with 2,800 hens will still be able to produce 750,000 eggs per year with no federal oversight.
Iowa’s egg producers are required to test for salmonella, but they are not required to report any positive test results to either the state or the FDA.
Some egg producers refuse to tell government inspectors the brands under which their eggs are being sold to consumers – a refusal that doesn’t result in sanctions of any kind.
Strangely, Kauffman doesn’t mention Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey in his latest report. I wonder whether Northey has an opinion about widespread food safety violations in Iowa’s egg industry. Does he believe state government could or should do anything to address the problems uncovered in this year’s FDA inspections? Last year’s salmonella outbreak occurred as Northey was running for re-election. He maintained that he couldn’t have done anything to prevent the outbreak–a claim challenged by his Democratic opponent Francis Thicke. Since being re-elected in 2010, Northey hasn’t proposed any new regulations or enforcement for egg producers.
Shortly before leaving office, Democratic Governor Chet Culver proposed changes to Iowa law to improve food safety in the egg industry. Neither the Iowa legislature nor Governor Terry Branstad’s administration showed any interest in Culver’s recommendations.
Some states, like Maine, have stricter rules to prevent salmonella contamination at egg-producing facilities. State regulations would be helpful, because Kauffman shows that federal rules are convoluted and ineffective:
Today, the U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the health of chickens, while the FDA is responsible for whole eggs. Oversight shifts back to the USDA when it comes to transportation of whole eggs. Broken eggs, which are made into liquid egg products, are overseen by the USDA, but the FDA oversees the storage of eggs at the retail level. The USDA grades eggs in production facilities, but health inspections in those same facilities falls to the FDA, which, until last year, had no rules or standards to enforce.
With virtually no state oversight, and federal oversight tied in a Gordian knot, many Iowa egg producers have operated for decades without ever being visited by a government food-safety inspector. Consumers, meanwhile, took comfort in buying eggs with the distinctive shield logo of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, unaware that it signified only that the eggs had been graded for size, not inspected for safety or quality.
Last July, new food-safety regulations that were 12 years in the making finally took effect. As part of its new enforcement efforts, the FDA set out to inspect about 600 of the nation’s largest egg producers.
As Kauffman shows throughout his piece, those FDA inspections matter little since 1) the facilities know in advance when inspectors will show up, 2) the inspectors do no independent testing for salmonella, and 3) producers face no consequences for flouting health and safety rules.
Reading today’s newspaper made me more determined to buy eggs laid on small Iowa farms, directly from producers if possible. Farm-fresh eggs can be found at farmer’s markets, co-ops and at many locally-owned grocery stores. Alternatively, many Iowans in urban as well as rural areas keep their own laying hens. Backyard Chickens and Urban Chickens are good sources for advice on how to get started.