Response to egg recall begs more questions (Rep. Rosa DeLauro)

Dear Dr. Frieden and Dr. Hamburg:
 
I am writing to express concern about the initial communications to the public about the current investigation into the salmonella egg recall.  While the effectiveness of a food safety system often should focus on prevention efforts, it also should be measured by its response to an outbreak and the initial communication efforts to inform the public about the egg recall were not reassuring.  Based on a report in USA Today on August 26, 2010, it appears that information from the epidemiological investigation was not shared quickly enough to allow regulators to respond expeditiously the outbreak.
 
The first public communication about the recall appears to have been in the form of a company press release posted on the FDA web site on Friday, August 13, 2010.  While I understand that the agency traditionally will allow companies to make these kind of statements in a voluntary recall situation, I question the wisdom of proceeding in this manner given the public health implications for this outbreak, which saw a three-fold increase in the number of cases reported to PulseNet.
 
In addition, it appears the first formal federal communication to the public was the posting of CDC of its “Investigation Announcement: Multistate Outbreak of Human Salmonella Enteridis Infections Associated with Shell Eggs” on Monday, August 16, 2010.  Between the initial company press release on Friday and the CDC announcement the following Monday, it was possible for many consumers to purchase recalled eggs over the weekend, which is when many Americans do their grocery shopping.  Also, because of the absence of any CDC guidance, many more may have consumed recalled eggs over the weekend.  It is imperative that the federal government clearly and timely communicate information to prevent people from becoming sick from products we know are contaminated.  It is troubling that a nationwide outbreak would be announced in such seemingly disjointed fashion.
 
Another concern about the response to this outbreak is the lack of transparency in communicating how the initial reports were handled, including:  how the initial epidemiological investigations were coordinated; how leads to be followed were pursued; and how quickly surveillance activities were integrated into appropriate regulatory follow-up.  In short, could federal food safety agencies and their state and local partners have moved more expeditiously to prevent the expansion of this outbreak?
 
I am especially concerned with how this outbreak response was handled in light of the draft Guidelines for Foodborne Outbreak Response released in the summer of 2009 by the Council to Improve Foodborne Outbreak Response (CIFORS).  As you know these guidelines were commended by U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius.
 
Understanding that you still are investigating this outbreak, I request that you provide a detailed after-action report on the outbreak response.  I look forward to continuing our mutual work in protecting the public health and ensuring the safety of our food supply.
 
Sincerely,
 
ROSA L. DeLAURO
Chairwoman
House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture
Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration,
and Related Agencies