Cleaning up the egg business

Cleaning up the egg business

August 25th, 2010 in Opinion

Nearly two dozen U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors reportedly are examining every aspect of operations at two huge Iowa egg farms involved in the recall of more than half a billion eggs tied to at least 1,300 cases of salmonella poisoning. Hopefully, the inspectors can identify the source of contamination, but even if they do, it will come too late. People have fallen ill, the food chain has been impacted and the government agency that Americans trust to safeguard the food they eat again has demonstrated an inability to do its job.

The major culpability for the recall and the illnesses prompted by the tainted eggs mostly rests with the egg producers. The federal government shares some of the blame, though. Its failure to require and fund a strong food safety program contributed to the problem.

The salmonella outbreak traced to Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms raises concerns about FDA inspection of those operations. The agency is responsible for inspections of shell eggs, but has been handicapped by shortfalls in funding, by political meddling in the George W. Bush administration, by an exodus of trained scientists and by bureaucratic snafus. Consolidation in the egg-producing industry has contributed to the woes as well.

Egg production was once the province of thousands of small farm operations. Nowadays, megabusinesses control the supply. Consequently, tainted eggs from one or two large producers can move quickly through the nation's food chain and adversely affect consumers in many states. That appears to be the case in the current recall.

Some large operations have a history of skirting the law. Austin "Jack" DeCoster, owner of Wright Eggs and one of the country's top 10 egg producers, has a lengthy rap sheet. He's been fined repeatedly for violating health, safety, environmental and employment regulations and for cruelty to animals. A decade ago, Iowa designated DeCoster a "habitual violator" of environmental regulations. That designation makes him subject to increased fines and penalties and prohibits him from building new farms. The label obviously failed to convince DeCoster to embrace good business practices.

A spokesman for Wright Eggs, of course, denies responsibility. "When issues have been raised about our farms, our management team has addressed them swiftly and effectively ... We are approaching our work with the FDA in the same forthright manner." Make of that what you will.

The truth is that the Centers for Disease control reports that 10 states have identified 26 instances in which more than one person became ill from tainted eggs. Preliminary reports suggest that Wright was the egg supplier in more than half those cases.

Some help for consumers worried about food safety is on the way. New federal rules governing egg production took effect last month - too late to stop distribution of eggs in the recall, but perhaps helpful in preventing or reducing similar events in the future. The regulations require producers to check flocks and properties for salmonella and other contaminants, to strengthen rodent and pest control to prevent the spread of bacteria and to establish testing regimens to identify contamination. Consumer groups endorse the regulations.

But the new rules mean little if egg producers ignore them. They will work only if there are enough agents and inspectors to enforce them and if penalties are so high that businessman can no longer afford to write them off as the "cost of doing business." Congress should provide the funds and personnel necessary to keep producers honest.