Iowa’s 60 Million Laying Hens Aren’t Being Monitored by Food-Safety Inspectors
In 2010, 550 million eggs were recalled after thousands of people were sickened with salmonella in an outbreak tied to farms in Iowa, the leading state for laying-hen production. Despite Iowa producing 15 billion eggs annually, amounting to $2 billion in sales, both state and federal food-safety inspections were halted there last year, the Des Moines Register reported on Sunday. The concern was that letting inspectors into laying-hen facilities could help spread the virulent strain of bird flu that has been killing off birds in the tens of millions.
While the disease has been devastating for animals and the people who rely on the industry for their livelihoods, there was a problem with the logic behind the plan: When the FDA stopped inspections in May 2015, there were no documented instances of bird flu being spread by inspectors.
“This is jaw-dropping. I just don’t know what else to say,” Marion Nestle, a professor of food studies at New York University and an expert on food safety, told the Register. “The inspectors are turning up potential hazards. Why anybody would tell you with a straight face that suspending these inspections is no big deal is beyond my comprehension.”
After the 2010 salmonella outbreak, the FDA was tasked with monitoring facilities with more than 3,000 hens. But after the FDA stopped its inspections in Iowa, the state agriculture department, which handles inspections for smaller facilities, followed the federal agency’s lead, halting its own inspections. Inspectors are tasked with checking salmonella protocols, detection of rodents and other pests, and the disinfection of eggs from the facility. All are directly tied to food safety.
Eggs are far less likely to carry salmonella than poultry, but when a laying hen is infected with the bacteria, there is a potential for it to pass onto the egg and remain present either on the shell or within the white and yolk. According to the FDA, eggs contaminated with salmonella sicken 79,000 people and kill 30 annually. Ironically, the agency’s own page on egg safety notes that it “has put regulations in place to help prevent contamination of eggs on the farm and during shipping and storage.”
The inspections have revealed both potentially dangerous problems and questionable activities. The final reports filed by inspectors before the freeze detail incidents of improper refrigeration, insufficient salmonella testing, and animals, including rodents and salmonella-carrying frogs, found in laying facilities.
Randy Olson, executive director of the Iowa Poultry Association, told TakePart that food-safety protocols “are firmly in place on Iowa’s egg farms” and that farmers are in “full compliance” with the regulations Congress passed after the 2010 salmonella outbreak, as well as other state and federal food-safety regulations.
“Maintaining public confidence in the safety of the eggs we produce is our priority—and consumers can trust that egg farmers in Iowa are doing all that is needed to provide them with safe, quality, nutritious eggs,” he added.
While Olson, among others in the industry, supports the suspension of inspections in Iowa, other states continued them (or halted them briefly) despite the theoretical risk that they could contribute to the transmission of bird flu. “The decision by the FDA to temporarily suspend on-farm inspections was essential for preventing disease from spreading between farms,” Olson said.
Neither the state nor the FDA will say when inspections will be reinstated at Iowa laying-hen facilities, which produce eggs sold nationwide.