Back in 1999, then-President Bill Clinton called for the elimination of all egg-based salmonella cases by 2010.
Eleven years later, almost no progress has been made.
According to recent estimates, half a billion eggs are being recalled in the latest salmonella outbreak, stoking the already heated debate about food safety.
Sherri McGarry, emergency coordinator for the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, threw one more matchstick into the flames with her statement in a conference call this week that this outbreak could have been prevented if new food safety rules had been implemented earlier.
The rules she referred to took effect on July 9, 2010. The regulations added to the level of scrutiny that egg production undergoes, bringing the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) into the process earlier.
Prior to the new mandate, the FDA left production inspection up to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), only examining eggs once they'd left the farms where they were produced. As of July 9, the FDA will overlap with the USDA to double-check the safety of egg production.
Aside from greater supervision, the new law introduced additional rules: Farms now must test eggs and facilities for salmonella. They must also keep feed and water clear of contamination, and buy chicks and young hens from suppliers that monitor for salmonella. Farms have until next July to get up to speed.
If the USDA wasn't testing for salmonella before, what exactly was it doing?
"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."
This outbreak has shed a bright light on the absence of a party responsible specifically for salmonella regulation. Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director at the watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), told FoxNews, "Food safety just totally fell through the cracks here...no one was checking."
CSPI has long blamed unregulated farm hazards as a glaring source of salmonella outbreaks. Back in 2004, DeWaal commended a proposal to eliminate salmonella in eggs, saying, "We need these kinds of tough, on-farm controls to eliminate the risk to consumers from tainted eggs. This is the first major food safety regulation covering hazards arising on the farm, the area of primary production.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, between May (when the crisis first began) and July, 1,953 reports of illness have been traced to this salmonella outbreak. It's the largest egg outbreak in history, and it began before the FDA had the jurisdiction to inspect the farms where the eggs were produced.
In the future, new standards may offer better protection against foodborne illness. For now, the focus is on figuring out—and fast—what spurred this outbreak.
"I don't know what's caused this current situation, or what the tie is between the outbreaks in these two farms, but we need to find out," Howard Magwire, a vice president of the national trade group United Egg Producers, told the Los Angeles Times.
Photo: Ivy Dawned/Creative Commons via Flickr