It's time to get cooking on egg safety

The FDA’s egg regulation was 20 years in development, but spent years in limbo as the federal agencies debated which should regulate the live hens that become infected and produce the tainted eggs. After studies had demonstrated that there were cost-effective Salmonella controls on egg farms, President Clinton in December 1999 made the following announcement: “[W]hen infected eggs still make it from the farm to the table, we know we have more work to do. That's why today I am taking new action on food safety to cut in half, over the next 5 years, the number of Salmonella cases attributed to eggs. And our goal is to eliminate these cases entirely by 2010…” The Wright County Egg outbreak makes one wonder whatever happened to that pledge to eliminate Salmonella cases linked to eggs by 2010. 

The egg safety rule languished through turf battles between FDA and USDA, and active neglect during the Bush Administration, even though it was fully supported by scientific risk assessments and touted as essential to protect consumers from an avoidable problem in shell eggs.  The hold up was a continuing debate over the bifurcation of food safety responsibilities that resulted in USDA regulating the live chicken but FDA regulating the egg. This debate continued even after the 1999 Presidential announcement on eggs. The Obama Administration finally allowed FDA to finalize the rule in July 2009.

The Obama Administration gave the egg industry a year to prepare to implement the egg rule, so it is truly ironic that this outbreak should occur so close to the deadline but this tragedy highlights the second delay in policy that might have prevented this outbreak as well.

The second delay is still ongoing but should soon be over if the Senate – at long last – passes food safety legislation that will give the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urgently needed tools to strengthen its food safety oversight. The Wright Egg outbreak is just the latest of a series of food safety crises that have driven efforts in Congress to update the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Following on an outbreak from peanut butter that killed 9 people and previous outbreaks linked to everything from spinach to pet food, the egg outbreak highlights that FDA’s food safety program still lacks the authority and resources to prevent these tragedies. 

The Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act is more than 70 years old. Designed to combat deceptive packaging and toxic ingredients, the law focused primarily on responding to criminal misconduct rather than on preventing the illnesses linked to pathogens in the food supply. FDA has struggled for many years to make this outdated law relevant in the era of integrated food suppliers and sophisticated nationwide delivery systems. 

In July 2009, the House of Representatives passed bipartisan food safety legislation, but the Senate, bogged down in partisan squabbling over numerous national priorities, has repeatedly put off floor action on its bill. This outbreak clearly shows the urgency for the Senate to pass S. 510, the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, when it returns in September. Following passage, the House and Senate should meet promptly to develop a consensus package that gets the strongest elements of their bills on the President’s desk before going home for elections.

The House and Senate bills both contain provisions that will make implementation of the egg safety regulation more effective. The bills each mandate more frequent inspections and enhanced outbreak surveillance. It gives FDA new tools for traceability and recall and better recordkeeping systems for tracking down and removing contaminated products from store shelves.

The good news is that – after a decade of delay – FDA has a strong egg safety regulation in effect for all but the smallest egg producers.  Second, Congress is poised to act on legislation that will strengthen FDA’s ability to enforce that regulation and make eggs (and many other foods) safer to consume. 

The bad news is that this is all taking place after years of delays and after many thousands of consumers have become ill from eggs.  Outbreaks like this can have long term affects on consumption habits, damaging sales for innocent suppliers, and discourage many consumers from enjoying this important low cost source of protein for months to come.

As Clinton concluded in 1999: Food safety is part of our citizens' basic contract with the Government. Any food that fails to meet clear and strict standards for safety should not make it to the marketplace; it's just that simple. 

Caroline Smith DeWaal is the director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest.