The USDA employees worked next to areas where roughly 7.7 million caged hens laid eggs at the two operations, but agency spokesman Caleb Weaver said their main duties are "grading" the eggs and they aren't primarily responsible for looking for health problems.
In response to the outbreak that has led to a recall of about 550 million eggs, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration examined the Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms and noted in a report this week that inspectors found rodents, wild birds, seeping manure and maggots in the operations there.
Weaver said the USDA employee who oversaw grading at the facility did not recall anyone raising issues.
Two former workers at Wright County Egg facilities, Robert and Deanna Arnold, said they reported problems such as leaking manure and dead chickens to USDA employees, but nothing was done.
The USDA "graders" worked in buildings adjacent to where hens laid eggs, focusing on weighing, measuring and inspecting eggs before they were packaged. They are the people who determine if an egg is A or AA, for instance.
"It didn't matter which USDA officer was working, if we reported something they would just turn their heads," Deanna Arnold said. "They didn't care."
The Arnolds said the USDA workers rotated in and out of the facility every week or two.
Arnold recalled that when she advised one USDA employee of a problem, she was told to ignore it.
"She just said go back to doing your job and that there was nothing they could do," Deanna Arnold said.
The Arnolds worked at Wright County's Galt Farm and another at Alden, Iowa, on and off over several years from the early 1990s to late 2008 and early 2009, when they left to seek other work because of dissatisfaction with the company.
The couple, who now manage a hog farm near Garrison and raise their own chickens, said they saw numerous problems while working at the plant.
Deanna Arnold said she worked on the line sorting eggs and saw live and dead chickens on the conveyer system that carries eggs from the poultry house to the USDA-staffed packing area. She said she also saw mice, tools and even a live cat on the conveyer system in the plant.
Her husband said he saw manure leaking from buildings and piles of manure that stood 40 feet high.
They also said boxes that contained eggs that were cracked in shipping and rejected by stores were returned to the distribution center. Although by then they were weeks old, some eggs that were not cracked were repackaged and sent back out, Robert Arnold said.
"I complained that that was wrong because they were old eggs, and the USDA person said it was OK because they do it all the time," he said.
Weaver said USDA graders must report unsanitary or other conditions that would require them to withhold grading services. Graders are paid through fees producers pay to the USDA. Only graded eggs can be sold to consumers at stores. Weaver said an investigation of Wright County Egg is continuing.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement to the Associated Press that the recall "exemplifies the critical need to make significant improvements" in the nation's food safety system and that the Obama administration had made food safety a top priority.
Part of the issue is that the FDA and the USDA split responsibility for egg-laying operations, with the FDA overseeing areas where hens lay eggs and the USDA in charge of the eggs as they are packaged. Spokeswomen for Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms said there had been no inspections of the egg-laying areas.
"Prior to this review, our farm had not been inspected by the FDA," said Wright County Egg spokeswoman Hinda Mitchell. The same was true at Hillandale Farms, said spokeswoman Julie DeYoung.
FDA officials said new rules that took effect July 9 requiring more testing and inspections could have helped prevent the contamination. Previously, the agency didn't have a system for visiting sites, instead focusing on farms primarily when they were linked to an outbreak, said spokesman Dick Thompson.
The "USDA has been working to close gaps and improve the safety of the meat, poultry and processed egg products over which we have authority and the FDA is taking action to address the fact that they have not had all of the tools needed to prevent outbreaks in areas where they have authority, such as shell eggs," Vilsack said. "The new rules FDA put into place last month help address gaps that existed, but we must pass the food safety legislation currently before Congress that will help FDA prevent outbreaks like this one."
The bill would give the Food and Drug Administration the power to order a food recall rather than merely request one. The agency would increase the frequency of inspections at processing plants and other facilities, something the food industry would help pay for. The bill also would require importers to verify the safety of their foreign suppliers and would require businesses that manufacture and process food to have in place plans to prevent impurities.
The USDA currently has an egg surveillance program in which inspectors visit packing facilities four times a year to ensure eggs are properly graded, but they don't go into hen houses. State inspectors could examine egg packaging areas, but not areas where hens laid eggs because of rules prohibiting people from walking back and forth between buildings that are aimed at preventing contamination.
David Werning, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Inspections and Appeals, said state inspectors can cite operations if they note problems, but he couldn't recall that the agency had ever done so. Until this week, he said, the agency had never received a complaint about an egg farm.
It received the first about an operation not connected to Wright County Egg or Hillandale Farms, but Werning attributed the complaint to publicity about those two farms.
"People are becoming more aware and saying 'I heard this is going on,"' Werning said.
More Egg Recall Coverage:
Rodents, Maggots Found at 2 Iowa Egg Farms
Egg Farm Owner in Recall Known for Violations
Egg Recall List Updated with Two More Brands
Eggs from Recall-Linked Farms May Yet Hit Market
How the Egg Recall is Changing Habits
Wholesale Egg Prices Jump 38%
Could Egg Contamination Have Been Prevented?