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Editorial

Safer eggs

In light of the salmonella outbreak and reports of filthy egg farms, passing the Food Safety Modernization Act should be a congressional priority.

September 01, 2010

How did bacteria spread through two Iowa egg farms, leading to the largest Salmonella enteritidis outbreak ever recorded in the U.S.? Take your pick. Stomach-turning inspection reports released Monday by the Food and Drug Administration found wild birds, which can carry the disease, flying and nesting near caged chickens and a feed mill. They found workers who didn't wear protective clothing, and chicken manure piled so high that it bulged through barn doors, providing access to rodents.

A better question would be, who's guarding the henhouse? Not government regulators. FDA officials claim new egg safety rules that went into effect in July could have prevented the outbreak had they been in place earlier, but that's true only if big egg producers actually obeyed them. Austin "Jack" DeCoster, the owner of Wright County Egg in Iowa, has allegedly been flouting federal environmental and workplace rules for decades with little consequence; his company has recalled 380 million eggs following the salmonella outbreak.

A bill to give regulators more authority probably would have died quietly in the Senate if not for the crisis, which has focused public attention on food security lapses. The Food Safety Modernization Act, already approved by the House, would give regulators the power to order mandatory recalls of tainted foods and suspend the registration of food facilities. Crossing the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a Senate filibuster on this bill still won't be easy considering the extraordinary power of Big Agriculture, but the failure of the current system shows how badly reform is needed.

Meanwhile, a simple and inexpensive way of preventing salmonella exposure is being neglected: vaccines for chickens. U.S. regulators examined such vaccines before the current outbreak but decided not to mandate them, apparently based on outdated studies, according to a recent report in the New York Times. Yet vaccination in Britain has all but wiped out salmonella in eggs there, and California vaccination guidelines have done the same in the Golden State. The FDA should reconsider the evidence.

Industrialized agriculture has profoundly changed the American diet and landscape, greatly reducing the cost of food but exacting a steep price in other areas. One of them is public health, which is under threat not only from farm-based bacteria such as E. coli and salmonella but also from industrial pesticides, synthetic hormones and the overuse of antibiotics on grain-fed livestock. With all that to cope with, fighting salmonella should be comparatively easy. All it takes is a little courage on the part of public officials to resist the farm lobby.

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