Cracking the Food Safety Crisis Behind the Egg Recall

Last Updated Aug 31, 2010 8:56 PM EDT

[This is a guest post by Susan Moran.]
The recall of a half billion eggs due to Salmonella poisoning highlights not only an abundance of industry hubris, but a shortage of federal oversight and foresight. On the other hand, it's also a helpful better-late-than-never spur for Congress to pass critically needed food-safety legislation.

The nation's biggest salmonella scare, which has made at least 1,300 people sick so far, also points out complexities in food production. For instance, while it's easy to blame the Industrial Food Complex's quest for profits and efficiency over safety, it isn't clear whether, say, cage-free or organic farms avert salmonella and other bacterial outbreaks.

Much has already been written about industrial hubris, including the careless practices of the two producers that recalled the eggs: Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, both large Iowa farms. But without strict, and enforced, oversight, capitalism is bound to have cracks in the system, whether caused by greed or ignorance. A proposal for a major overhaul of the nation's food regulatory system has been dragged through Congress for years. Coincidentally, that proposal, called the Food Safety Modernization Act, or S. 510, is slated for a Senate vote next month.

The salmonella outbreak should give politicians an added kick to stand behind consumer advocates, and some industry players as well, and pass the legislation.

In short, the food-safety bill would grant the FDA the authority to force a recall (recalls of tainted products are currently voluntary), make more frequent factory inspections, examine producers' records and operations, and generally trace the source food-borne outbreaks to their origin more quickly. But legislation alone won't go far enough. The FDA also needs to take the recommendations of a recent National Academy of Science report and prioritize health risks better and identify them before outbreaks liks this one happen.

"The FDA really needs to think about restructuring the regulatory approach to risks," Glen Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogen Institute at the University of Florida who also helped the NAS report, told me. "Right now the FDA is reactive. There's an egg recall to it's focused on eggs. You'd like to get ahead of the curve to where you're identifying in advance what the problems are and then putting in place the necessary regulatory structure to deal with problems before they occur. It's not sexy. It doesn't make headlines. But it sure is better for people."

The current recall -- on the heels of several others in recent months and years, including tomatoes, spinach and peanuts -- doesn't answer the question of whether organic or free-range farms are off the hook. Ignorantly, I have felt somehow immune to food-borne microbial outbreaks by scrambling organic, cage-free chicken eggs from "small" farms. But the connection between cage farming, for instance, and disease appears to be not so black-and-white. Studies are mixed.

Generally, big operations, where chickens or cows are crammed together, pathogens can spread more easily. But on the other hand, as Dr. Morris notes, larger operations have more resources to put into safety and testing than mom-and-pop farms. Further, in some smaller farms where, say, chickens roam free they can more easily come into contact with pathogens from wildlife. So it's not so black-and-white on the farm or the factory.

Image via Flickr user woodleywonderworks, CC 2.0

  • Susan Moran

    Susan Moran is a freelance journalist based in Boulder, Colo.