The latest salmonella outbreak in eggs is just as slippery as -- well, an uncooked egg.
First, there’s the question of how much of a risk this is to you and me. The answer is unexpected – not much.
Even if you take into account that over half a billion eggs have been recalled, and even if you add in the fact that food poisoning tends to be vastly underreported, we are still left with the fact that the number of people who have been infected is only in the low thousands. And, most importantly, no one has died.
Even if you encounter an infected egg, you are not likely to get sick from it because cooking eggs kills the bacteria. And even in the rare instance that you were to become infected with salmonella, the chances are great that you would recover, especially if you counter the diarrhea that comes with salmonella by simply drinking fluids.
So is this all of the coverage of the past two weeks just media hype like we've seen in the past with mad cow disease or the bird flu? No. This time all the hysteria is serving a productive purpose, it's shining a spotlight on egg farms, which really are unsafe, unclean, with poor working conditions and hens clumped together in tiny cages. Not only that but after a rodent or worker introduces salmonella into the hens' feed, it spreads like wildfire from hen to hen and onto the forming eggs before they have been hatched.
The policing of farms like Wright County Egg, where the outbreak originated, has always fallen into the cracks between the USDA and the FDA. In fact, the FDA has only really tracked the safety of eggs once they've left the farm. And the USDA only monitors eggs in terms of their physical appearance, NOT in terms of their safety.
In the meantime, Austin "Jack" Decoster, owner of Wright County Egg, as well as its feed and chick distributor, has faced repeated citations for unsafe oppressive working conditions. And he is not alone.
A new regulation that the FDA has just adopted may help going forward, since the large farms with over 50,000 hens will supposedly be required to follow rules of refrigeration, salmonella screening and disinfection in non-pasteurized eggs, rodent and pest control. Now the big question is will farms comply with the new regulations or will they continue their unsafe practices, paying thousands of dollars in fines rather than millions of dollars in upgrades?
Unfortunately, many fear they will just pay the fines and continue with unsafe practices.
There is also a federal food safety bill, known as the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act, which has already passed the House and is currently before the Senate. This bill could provide the "teeth" the FDA needs to really clamp down on violators and make recalls mandatory. The bill also gives the HHS secretary the authority to close down facilities where a serious health risk is found.
But small egg farmers and distributors fear that superimposing federal regulations will be oppressive to their business, and it is also not clear that the law can really be imposed.
Pressure is being put on the Senate this week by Consumers Union to finally pass the bill which has been stalled for several months.
The CDC reported the outbreak initially, and has been providing timely updates, but it has no real regulatory power over food. The USDA has power over hens, but doesn't think in terms of food safety. The FDA is just getting started, having been too hands off in the past, and their growing regulatory power could really help if the big egg farms are made to comply with new regulations.
Vaccinating hens against salmonella would help decrease the number of cases dramatically, as it has in Great Britain. This process would only cost about 14 cents per hen, but the FDA has decided not to mandate it. That’s a big mistake and it reveals the FDA's continuing weakness against the powerful egg industry consortium.
It does not bode well for the FDA's new regulatory power if the agency flinches rather than insisting on vaccines.
What would help most of all is the creation of safe and comfortable living conditions for the hens who lay the eggs Americans love to eat. The growing fear of eggs that is fueling the media and political response to the recent recall could be a useful weapon to force real reform on the industry.
Unfortunately, even as the FDA takes the reins, the resistance and long time corrupt practices surrounding the production of eggs may still be too deeply embedded to overcome.
Marc Siegel M.D. is an associate professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center and a Fox News Medical contributor.
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