The recent large-scale egg recall has prompted quality experts to weigh in on whether new food safety requirements would have helped prevent the latest salmonella outbreak.

The U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) says as many as 79,000 illnesses and 30 deaths due to consumption of eggs contaminated with the bacterium Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) may be avoided each year with its new food safety requirements for large-scale egg producers. But, quality experts aren’t necessarily as confident in the rule’s ability to prevent infections.

Affecting producers having 50,000 or more laying hens, the FDA says the new rule requires adoption of preventive measures and use of refrigeration during egg storage and transportation. Preventive measures include:

  • Supply chain management (buying chicks and young hens only from suppliers who monitor for SE).
  • Establishing rodent control.
  • Testing poultry houses for SE.

The new rule went into effect July 9, too late to prevent an August 20 national voluntary recall of shell eggs shipped from two Iowa farms. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had identified a nationwide increase in SE. As of the start of September, more than 2,400 illnesses (but no deaths) were identified with a DNA fingerprint identical to that found on two Iowa farms. Approximately 950 cases would normally be found during that period.

The American Society for Quality (ASQ) sat in on an August 26 media briefing with Sherri McGarry, emergency coordinator at the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN). She said feed used at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms of Iowa, which share suppliers of chickens and feed, was the likely, but not necessarily only source of the contamination.

Robert Reich, former secretary of labor and blogger on the Christian Science Monitor’s Web site, however, points out that Jack DeCoster, owner of the two megafarms, has a long history of violations of all sorts of rules and an apparent willingness to pay even multimillion-dollar penalties as a cost of doing business.

John Surak is a member of the executive committee of ASQ’s Food, Drug and Cosmetic Division. He’s also a professor emeritus at Clemson University. He specializes in food safety issues, especially in the quality management system area. Surak says more inspection isn’t the answer.

“Before the recall, the estimated contamination rate of eggs was one in 20,000. If you want to use inspection to detect whether a lot of eggs were contaminated, you would have to randomly sample 160,000 from that one lot test with a method that would detect one salmonella cell per egg,” Surak explains.

The new rule is good and may help protect consumers by making the system more robust, but it’s not the complete answer, Surak continued. “Consumers also have a responsibility in preventing foodborne disease. In the case of eggs, the consumer should follow the recommendations found at www.foodsafety.gov and www.fightbac.org.”

A high-level assessment is offered by Grace Duffy, ASQ Fellow, author and quality adviser to the assistant secretary for preparedness and response within the U.S. Health and Human Services Department. “It’s one of complexity and cost/benefit,” says Duffy. “Not that making people ill is ever a justification for saving money, but eggs are not a high-margin commodity. Chickens are not generally kept in large spaces, and there is a limited amount of hygiene in the facilities. Certainly, there are standards for testing and sampling of the hens and eggs, though, as part of the food production process.”
For more information about quality practices in the food processing industry, visit the American Society for Quality’s Web site at www.asq.org.