Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Salmonella in Eggs: What Happens When Nobody's In Charge

"Egg Recall Exposes Gaps in Federal Oversight"
FOXNews (August 23, 2010)

"Two federal agencies are downplaying their oversight roles in the wake of a massive egg recall that so far has affected 22 states and shined a light on what lawmakers and watchdogs for years have claimed is a broken system for regulating a primary source of salmonella outbreaks.

"About 1,300 cases of salmonella poisoning have been linked to the latest outbreak, and approximately 500 million eggs have been recalled from two Iowa egg distributors.

"One supplier linked to the cases has a history of violations dating back to 1994 -- but the Food and Drug Administration says the violations that were recorded were outside its purview. On top of that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says it never had an inspector dedicated to food safety at the farms...."

I Thought You Were Driving

It looks like the FDA believes that it's been responsible for monitoring eggs after the eggs are processed. Until then, again from the FDA point of view, it's the USDA that's supposed to be seeing to it that some cost-cutting wunderkind of a boss doesn't let salmonella get in our food supply.

The problem is that the USDA seems to think that they're not involved in food safety regulations involving shell eggs - at all:

"...A USDA official, though, told FoxNews.com that USDA agencies have had no involvement in food safety regulations over shell eggs. The official said USDA's chief task was to send an official to the farms, including one involved in the latest outbreak, to grade the eggs -- in other words, inspect them for thickness and cracks and other quality assurance factors in order to give them a USDA seal of approval. That stamp, though, does not certify that an egg is salmonella-free...."

Remember: Most American Egg Producers Don't Make You Sick

It's a wonder we haven't had more salmonella outbreaks.

I think this tells us something about integrity of the agribusiness operators who didn't poison their customers - even though nobody was looking over their shoulder.

Integrity - or common sense.

Ending Salmonella in Eggs by 2010? Oops

There's some good news in the article.

A set of policies dating back to the Clinton administration address these gaps and vague areas in federal oversight of egg production. Or, rather, would address them if they'd been put into effect.

The target date for making salmonella in eggs a thing of the past was 2010.

Looks like we didn't quite make it.

I appreciate the - irony? dry humor? - of this statement:

"The FDA probably had some authority to inspect egg farms but did not exercise it, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. She said the confusion is no surprise since federal law does not clearly put one agency in charge of egg safety.

" 'Food safety just totally fell through the cracks here,' she said. 'If you have a company violating a number of different types of laws and (it) is found to be a repeat violator ... it's highly likely that they're also cutting corners when it comes to food safety. But no one was checking.'

"Instead, the FDA has mostly been reacting after outbreaks occur, she said, 'like the fire department.'..."

I'd say that's definitely better than nothing.

Then there's this wonderfully obvious observation, about the effectiveness of the new rules:

"...'Unfortunately, they went into effect a little bit after this outbreak began,' she said...."

Is There Intelligent Life in Washington?

I've ranted, a little, before about Congress making up rules for the rest of us to live by - and then not not allocating money so that some inspector can come around from time to time and see whether rat poop is being put in peanut butter. (I'm not making that up.)

I'm no fan of regulations - particularly the sort that make no sense. On the other hand, I realize that we need to have rules to deal with the occasional nitwit who poisons our food. Quite accidentally, of course.

I'm fairly sure that the peanut potentate who thought rat poop in his product didn't matter was just trying to save a buck. My guess is that a similarly suicidal budget-mindedness is behind this salmonella outbreak.

Now, Some Good News

A somewhat hopeful headline that showed up since I started writing this post:

"No Evidence Tainted Eggs Go Beyond 2 Farms"
Associated Press, via FOXNews (August 24, 2010)

"Food and Drug Administration officials said Monday that there is no evidence a massive outbreak of salmonella in eggs has spread beyond two Iowa farms, though a team of investigators is still trying to figure out what caused it.

"FDA officials said they do not expect the number of eggs recalled — 550 million — to grow.

"Dr. Jeff Farrar, FDA's associate commissioner for food protection, said 20 FDA investigators are at the two farms, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, and could be there until next week. He said preliminary findings of the investigation should be available later this week.

"Farrar said the chicks that came to the farms from a Minnesota hatchery appear to have been free of illness, so contamination most likely happened at the Iowa locations. The FDA is looking at eight different sites on the farms where laying hens were reared as well as other locations, he said...."

Now, long after the hens were infected, it's going to be tricky, trying to find whatever it is that infected those chickens.

At least it looks like we don't need to be concerned about more outfits being involved in this particular case.
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