Last summer's massive egg recall gave modern egg production a black eye as the salmonella bacteria outbreak was traced to two large egg-laying operations in Iowa. It prompted a strong reaction from consumer groups and legislators who called for government inspectors and the federal Food and Drug Administration to be more aggressive in enforcing food safety measures on farms were eggs are produced.
In February 2011, Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey testified before the Iowa Legislature to update lawmakers. "FDA is doing things differently now," he says. "They are more aggressive in stepping up the requirement for testing eggs and for testing egg producing facilities for food safety. The situation last year put the spotlight on egg safety."
FDA actually had these more aggressive food safety plans drawn up before the incidents happened in Iowa last summer. It's too bad the new rules didn't go into effect before the salmonella outbreak occurred, or that recall of 550 million eggs would have been a lot smaller or perhaps could have been avoided altogether, says Northey.
FDA now requires testing of egg production facilities
FDA now requires testing of egg facilities. At three different times in their life, laying hens are vulnerable to picking up salmonella enteritis, sometimes called SE. The hens go through a testing process in the facility on the farm after they can potentially get SE.
The test shows if the facilities are clean and if the eggs are clean. The facilities are tested first, and if that test comes back positive, FDA then tests the eggs. Often the eggs are still clean and are without salmonella. "This is an early warning system that was not being used before the events of last summer," says Northey, "but this system is now being used and is required by FDA."
FDA is now more aggressive in sending inspectors to egg farms. "We still don't know exactly what caused the hens to come down with salmonella enteritis last summer and to pass it through to the eggs," says Northey. "Likely it was the hens' access to rodents. Mice and rats can carry salmonella. When the mice run down a feed trough they can contaminate the feed and hens can pick up the SE."
Rodents were likely culprits to transmit the bacteria to hens
Northey says the cause of the SE outbreak could also have been the hens themselves. When they were put into the laying house as a flock when they were small, if they were exposed to salmonella, then they were positive for a longer part of their life. "But probably the cause of the outbreak was rodents," he adds.
"Rodents can get into a hen house facility and certainly there were problems with rodents in the facility near Galt in Wright County in north-central Iowa. Rodents were able to enter the laying house and could have contaminated the feed."
Two big Iowa egg farms cited with food safety violations in 2010
Last year's salmonella outbreak led to the recall of 550 million eggs produced by Wright County Egg of Galt and by Hillandale Farms at New Hampton. Both companies were forced in August to divert their eggs into the liquid egg market. In liquid form, eggs are pasteurized and used for food manufacturing instead of going to the shell egg market in grocery stores. Shell eggs are sold for higher prices than liquid eggs and are more profitable for egg producers.
FDA investigated both of the Iowa egg-laying operations and the farms have since corrected their problems. Hillandale, which had purchased both their hens and their feed from Wright County Egg, was allowed to resume sales of fresh shell eggs in October. Wright County Egg has been allowed to resume some sales of shell eggs but only from two barns on one of the company's six farms.
As a follow up to last summer's problems in Iowa, FDA recently completed inspections of 35 large egg production farms in other states. They were targeted because they were associated with previous outbreaks or had a history of poor compliance with the rules. Most of the problems cited by the inspectors involve inadequate record keeping. Under the new egg safety regulations now in effect, farms are required to document compliance on a variety of issues, including rodent monitoring and biosecurity measures.