The Incredible Inedible Egg: 500 Million Reasons for Senate Action

So much for the doldrums of August. Little did we anticipate the recall of over half-billion shell eggs now linked to a nationwide outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis. Almost 2,000 confirmed clinical cases, nearly triple the normal incidence, were reported between May and July with more likely to follow. No deaths have been reported. The alleged culprits, poultry farmer giants Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, both Iowa-based, are presently the subject of an unprecedented on-site investigation by local, state and federal officials seeking to unearth the source of the contamination. Chick hatcheries, tainted feed, and rodent droppings remain prime suspects. Led by the FDA's activated emergency operations command center, effectiveness checks of the recall are also underway.

Coming on the heels of recalls of bacteria-harboring beef (E. Coli), Cueso Cotija Cheese (Staphylococcus Aureus), Veggie Lovers Salad (Listeria Monocytogenes), and Frozen Mamey Pulp (Salmonella) -- and that is in the month of August alone -- the shell egg scare begs the age-old question of food safety in the US. Overseen by 15 federal agencies as well as innumerable state and local health departments, this regulatory fabric is glaringly deficient in empowering the FDA, the one administrative agency primarily tasked with enforcing the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (FDCA) of 1938. Indeed, the FDA lacks all but the most rudimentary authority to fulfill its mission. We must do better than that. What is called for is nothing short of bold statutory food safety reform. Toothless faint hearted remedies need not apply.

Nobody illustrates the need in food safety reform better than Austin J. "Jack" DeCoster, founder and owner of an agricultural concern of intensive piggeries and egg plants. Laughing all the way to the bank during this and prior infractions, the so-called "Teflon Chicken Don" has thrived for over three decades in the regulatory food safety vacuum. Ever controversial, Iowa's first "Habitual Violator" of environmental statutes has consistently flouted animal rights rules, child labor laws, employment discrimination legislation, OSHA ordinances, and immigration rulings. Though fined and sanctioned on multiple occasions, best one can tell, the smug disregard displayed by this egg and hog tycoon appears to proceed unabated. It is hardly a surprise that Wright County Egg has emerged as a likely offender in this most recent, indeed largest ever recall of shell eggs. Absent FDA empowerment, transgressions of an industry unchecked are here to stay.

Help may well be underway. On July 9, 2010, the FDA announced a new final rule to ensure egg safety and reduce Salmonella illness. Requiring egg producers to adopt broad flock-based preventive measures and to use refrigeration during egg storage and transportation, the new "egg rules" -- in development since 2004 -- are expected to reduce egg-borne Salmonella Enteritidis infestations by nearly 60 percent. As many as 79,000 illnesses and 30 deaths could be prevented annually. Waiting in the wings is house-passed H.R. 2749 (Food Safety Enhancement Act of 2009), an amendment to the FCDA. Providing the FDA with broad authority to register food facilities, assess fees, access records, impose recalls, establish food quarantines, levy penalties, initiate a stepped up risk-based inspection schedule, and issue subpoenas as needed, H.R. 2749 will also apply to importers and exporters given the stipulation that the provisions of the FDCA apply internationally. The Senate may be ready to do its part by acting on S. 510 (The FDA Safety Modernization Act). Unanimously reported out of the HELP Committee on November 18, 2009 and amended on August 12, 2010, a bipartisan compromise bill could well be ready for a Senate vote when congress reconvenes in September. It is badly needed and not a moment to soon.

One would not normally expect anything of value to come out of rotten eggs. This may well be the exception. To the extent that this unfortunate episode provides the impetus to bring S. 510 to the floor of the Senate, the tainted Iowan shell eggs will have done their part. Life will never be the same again. Crisis is a terrible thing to waste.