Reporting from Washington — Only half of the scientists surveyed at the federal agency responsible for monitoring the safety of the nation's egg supply have full confidence that their organization adequately protects consumers from food-borne illness in eggs — and that was before the recent salmonella outbreak.
The survey of Food and Drug Administration scientists by the Union of Concerned Scientists has set off alarm bells within the nonpartisan watchdog organization.
"What is scary to me is that this is indicative of a much larger problem," said Francesca T. Grifo, director of the group's Scientific Integrity Program. "This is an agency in need of additional resources and authority, and I would add transparency to that list."
Grifo disclosed the findings Monday as FDA investigators continued to search for the cause of a salmonella outbreak at two Iowa egg producers that has sickened hundreds of people and led to the recall of about 550 million eggs — one of the largest egg recalls in history.
An FDA food safety official said that barring further investigative developments, the recall should not expand further.
But political pressure has begun to build, with congressional demands for answers about what went wrong being fired at food safety officials and the egg producers.
The producers, Hillandale Farms of Iowa Inc. and Wright County Egg Farms, voluntarily recalled the eggs in a series of announcements beginning Aug. 13. Both companies obtained young chickens and feed from a firm run by Wright County Egg owner Austin "Jack" DeCoster.
DeCoster has a decades-long record of violations of environmental and labor standards.
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said new egg safety rules that took effect July 9 were too late to help in this case, but would "very likely" have allowed the agency to head off the outbreak.
Hamburg on Monday renewed her call for passage of stalled legislation to give her agency more tools to ensure food safety, including the authority to recall food, instead of relying on producers to voluntarily pull back their products.
Grifo of the Union of Concerned Scientists said she supported calls by Hamburg for more resources, but wanted to make it easier for the public to have access to the agency's work. "We have easy access by the industry to regulators and a more difficult path for the consumers," she said.
The organization polled 2,874 FDA scientists this year and 17% responded to a question about egg safety — a standard response rate for studies of this nature, Grifo said.
The survey included the question: "How confident are you that the (current food safety system) adequately protects the consumer from food-borne illness from the following foods?" In the case of eggs, half of the respondents said they were completely or mostly confident in the results, while a quarter said they were somewhat confident. Five percent reported no confidence at all. The rest responded that they did not know.
Also on Monday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee for the FDA and Department of Agriculture, sent a letter to Hamburg and Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack seeking information about how aggressively their agencies had monitored Wright County Egg and other firms controlled by DeCoster, given his troubled regulatory history.
Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) of the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters to DeCoster and Hillandale requesting information and records pertaining to the salmonella recall.
DeCoster, in particular, was hit with a voluminous request that included records of any allegations of violations of health, safety, environmental or animal cruelty laws involving a web of at least two dozen companies.