Last week the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced it is allowing Wright County Egg to resume limited sales of fresh shell eggs for the first time since a salmonella outbreak was traced to the company's egg-laying operation near the town of Galt in north central Iowa.
Galt is near Clarion in Wright County, and the resumption of egg sales is being restricted initially to two of 18 barns on a farm that is one of the company's six sites. The two barns near Clarion have been cleaned and re-stocked with hens, have been tested for salmonella and approved by FDA.
The company, owned by Jack DeCoster, along with a second company, recalled 550 million eggs in August after the salmonella contamination was discovered. More than 1,500 people became ill, which was linked to the companies' eggs. FDA inspectors were called in and found widespread problems at Wright County Egg involving biosecurity and violations of new federal egg-safety regulations. Violations included doors to the chicken houses forced open by manure piling up inside and the presence of live mice, which can carry salmonella bacteria.
FDA decision based on corrective actions made
FDA gave the company a warning in October, threatening to close the egg laying operation if the problems weren't corrected. Since the recall in August, Wright County Egg has been allowed to sell its eggs but only for pasteurization and processing as liquid eggs. Selling eggs as liquid eggs to food manufacturers for baking and processing purposes isn't nearly as profitable as selling fresh eggs in the shell in grocery stores.
FDA officials said last week its decision to allow the company to start to sell fresh shell eggs again was based on corrective actions taken in those two hen houses. FDA will permit resumption of sales from additional barns as the company fixes problems in those buildings.
FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg last week said: "During the outbreak, I said FDA would not agree to the sale of eggs to consumers from Wright County Egg until we had confidence that they could be shipped and consumed safely. After four months of intensive work by the company and with oversight, testing and inspections by FDA, I am satisfied that the time has come."
All hens in the two barns at the time of the outbreak were removed, and the buildings were cleaned, sanitized and tested to ensure that they are no longer contaminated with salmonella, she says. The company has also developed a biosecurity plan to minimize risk of contamination from other barns or farms. A company feed mill that supplies Wright County Egg was cleaned and disinfected. Feed ingredients are now being routinely tested for salmonella.
Working to phase-in egg production at other barns
The second company involved in the egg recall last August, Hillandale Farms of Iowa, was allowed to resume selling fresh, shell eggs in October. The eggs and the areas around the barns were tested and found safe, says FDA. Wright County Egg and Hillandale Egg will continue to test the buildings monthly. FDA officials say the agency plans to inspect the barns periodically to make sure the egg farm is operating properly.
Peter DeCoster, son of Jack DeCoster and chief operating officer of Wright County Egg, says the company is working with FDA to phase-in sales of eggs from additional barns over a period of time. "Extraordinary measures have been put in place to put our egg farms at the forefront of food safety and to protect the health of our birds," he says. "Our team has worked tirelessly the past several months to ensure that the past situation is never repeated."
The recall in August brought national attention to the problems Jack DeCoster and his egg operations have had with food safety as well as with immigration and environmental laws. The problems have occurred in Iowa, and also in Maryland and Maine, two of the other states where DeCoster produces eggs. The outbreak also prompted the egg industry to strengthen its voluntary safety standards and provided momentum for Congress to pass new food safety legislation.