by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Eggs

Aug 21 2012

The FDA tries again on egg safety

We Americans like our eggs.

American egg producers provide us with about 76 billion eggs a year, which averages out to 242 eggs per capita.

But their safety can be iffy for two reasons: Salmonella and cholesterol.

Since the 1980s, more and more eggs have gotten contaminated with pathogenic Salmonella enteriditis, in part because of the increasing size of egg farms, and in part because of long delays in safety rules.

Salmonella is a preventable problem.

Producers must use clean food and water, probiotics to prevent development of pathogenic bacteria in hen intestines, and vaccines as necessary.  They also must keep eggs cold.

I discussed all this in my book What to Eat, in a chapter I called “Eggs and the Salmonella Problem.”  In it, I reviewed some history:

  •  1997     Center for Science in the Public Interest petitions the FDA to do insist that egg farms follow standard food safety procedur.
  • 1999     The FDA requires Safe Handling labels on egg cartons and refrigeration during storage and transport.
  • 2004    The FDA proposes safety rules for on-farm egg production.
  • 2009    The FDA issues rules to be implemented in 2010 for egg producers with 50,000 or more hens, and 2012 for producers with 3,000 or more.

Yesterday, the FDA issued Guidance for Industry:  Questions and Answers Regarding the Final Rule, Prevention of Salmonella Enteritidis in Shell Eggs During Production, Storage, and Transportation.

And it updated its Egg Safety home page.

Still to come: rules for producers of organic eggs that allow hens access to the outdoors.

But maybe we shouldn’t be eating so many eggs anyway?

A recent Canadian study associates eating egg yolks with formation of plaques in coronary arteries.

The egg industry doesn’t like this study much.

Eggs have been shown to have a wide range of health benefits, providing 13 essential vitamins and minerals, high-quality protein and antioxidants, all for just 70 calories.

It cites other studies giving different results.

These findings are surprising and contradict more than 40 years of research demonstrating that healthy adults can enjoy eggs without significantly impacting their risk of heart disease.

I like eggs.  I vote for everything in moderation on this one.  But having seen industrial egg facilities, I’m buying them from farmers’ markets these days—for reasons of food safety, animal welfare, and taste.

Feb 8 2012

Listeria in hard-boiled eggs? How come?

A company called Michael Foods has recalled more than one million hard-boiled eggs because of possible contamination with Listeria monocytogenes.  These especially nasty bacteria grow happily at refrigerator temperatures.

Michael Foods packaged the eggs in buckets of brine at a facility in Wakefield, Nebraska.  Investigators suspect a room in the packaging plant as the most likely source of contamination.  Listeria do tend to lurk in wet crevices of packing plants.

The company’s recall notice says:

None of the eggs were sold directly by Michael Foods to retailers or consumers. However, food distributors and manufacturers who purchased the eggs could have used them in products that were sold to retail outlets or used in foodservice settings.

Think: commercially prepared egg salad sandwiches and potato salads.

If you can’t quite get how a million hard-cooked eggs could be exposed to Listeria, you have plenty of company, mine included.

Hard-boiled eggs are boiled.  They are sterile.  What could have happened?

I went to the Web to find out how eggs are processed for commercial use, and discovered the Sanovo Group.   This company produces machines that wash and peel hard-boiled eggs (check the video).

The company’s SB 20000 Egg Boiler, for example:

automatically boils, cools and peels up to 20,000 eggs/hour. It can handle both brown and white eggs [Huh?  Why would anyone expect a difference?]….The SB 20000 Egg Boiler centres the yolk on stainless steel rollers, improving the egg quality and yield. A uniform boiling of the eggs is obtained by the built-in conveyor working with up to 18 minutes boiling time.

The boiled eggs are cooled for 23 minutes in the SC 20000 Egg Cooler, improving the peeling of the eggs. Ice water is injected in the centre of the cooling drum for optimal cooling transmission to the egg.

The SP 20000 Egg Peeler gently cracks the eggshells. Using the hygienic and no-scratch peeling technique. The complete system is easily cleaned for optimal hygiene.

The contamination must have occurred after the eggs were peeled or while they were in the buckets.

To me, the mere thought of peeled, hard-cooked eggs sitting in pails of cold, Listeria-friendly salt water for who knows how long be should make anyone run for the nearest testing kit.

These egg recalls are a perfect example of the hazards of industrial-scale food production.

Support your local egg farmer and peel your own eggs!

Sep 17 2010

A decent food safety system: will we ever get one?

I get asked all the time what food has to do with politics.  My answer: everything.  Take food safety, for example.

No wonder meat producers hate bad press.  According to Illinois Farm Gate, when consumers read scary things about meat, they stop buying it.

When media attention is given to animal welfare issues, regardless of the production practices involved, consumer demand softens not only for that particular meat, but for all meats. Over the past decade, pork and poultry demand would be higher, were it not for media attention to livestock production issues. Such attention causes consumers to eat less meat and show preference to spend their food dollar on non-meat items for as long as 6 months after the media report.

This week’s bad press is about the use of antibiotics as growth promoters in industrial pig farming.

Dispensing antibiotics to healthy animals is routine on the large, concentrated farms that now dominate American agriculture. But the practice is increasingly condemned by medical experts who say it contributes to a growing scourge of modern medicine: the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, including dangerous E. coli strains that account for millions of bladder infections each year, as well as resistant types of salmonella and other microbes.

Dr. James R. Johnson, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Minnesota explains what this is about:

For those of us in the public health community, the evidence is unambiguously clear….Most of the E. coli resistance in humans can be traced to food-animal sources.

Will reports like this discourage consumers from buying pork and other meats?  Consumers are not stupid.  They just might.

As for our profoundly dysfunctional Senate: it seems increasingly unlikely to pass food safety legislation before the midterm election cycle.  All of a sudden, food safety is too expensive?

Tell that to industries producing food that nobody will buy out of fear of becoming sick.

That’s food politics in action for you.

Last year at about this time, Bill Marler, the Seattle attorney who represents victims of food poisonings, sent every senator a tee shirt with this logo on it.  I suppose it’s naive to hope that maybe he will get his wish by this thanksgiving, but I am everlastingly optimistic that reason occasionally prevails.

Footnote 1: China is considering the death penalty for perpetrators of food safety crimes: “Officials who are involved in food safety crimes should not be given a reprieve or be exempt from criminal punishment.” Mind you, I am not a proponent of the death penalty, but I do think we need a safety system that holds food producers accountable.

Footnote 2: And then there is the half billion”incredible” egg recall.  Slow Food USA has a nifty video on the alternatives: “USDA and FDA.  Make eggs edible.  Now that would be incredible.”

Aug 31 2010

The FDA’s egg inspection reports. Yuck.

The FDA has just posted the “483″ reports from inspectors who examined the Iowa egg factories responsible for the recent Salmonella outbreak and recalls.  These, as the New York Times puts it, go into “nose-pinching detail.”

I happen to have a strong stomach for these kinds of things, perhaps because I have had children. Birds, like babies, produce waste. Babies create some smelly sanitation issues.  But tens of thousands of birds in one place create waste on an entirely different scale—for the birds themselves, for the workers who handle them, and for people who eat their eggs.

The FDA reports make interesting reading. The inspection violations at the Hillandale facility ranged from the seemingly trivial (unsigned forms) to the disturbing (rodent holes) to the alarming (leaky manure) to the utterly damning (egg wash water testing positive for Salmonella enteriditis).

The comments on the Wright Egg facility sometimes approach the poetic (these are direct quotes):

  • Approximately 2×6 inch wood board was observed on the ground with approximately 8 frogs living underneath.
  • Layer 3 -House 8 had a bird’s nest and birds were observed under the edges of metal siding on the south wall.
  • The outside access door to the manure pits at these locations had been pushed out by the weight of the manure, leaving open access to wildlife or domesticated animals.
  • Dark liquid which appeared to be manure was observed seeping through the concrete foundation to the outside of the laying houses.
  • Uncaged birds (chickens having escaped) were observed in the egg laying operation…The uncaged birds were using the manure, which was approximately 8 feet high, to access the egg laying area.
  • There were between 2 to 5 live mice observed inside the egg laying houses.
  • Live and dead flies too numerous to count were observed…inside the egg laying houses.
  • Birds were observed roosting and flying, chicks heard chirping in the storage and milling facility. In addition, nesting material was observed in the feed mill closed mixing system, ingredient storage and truck filling areas.

Take home lesson: If you just have a few chickens, waste is not a problem. If you have millions of chickens in one place, you have a disaster in waiting.

Let’s put concentration in the egg industry in some historical context. My partner, Dr. Malden Nesheim, trained originally as a poultry scientist. He points out that according to the USDA about 450 egg facilities in the United States house more than 100,000 egg laying hens, and these account for nearly 80% of all egg production.

Just for fun, he looked up the figures in his 1966 textbook, Poultry Production (10th edition).  A table in the first chapter lists more than 100,000 poultry farms in 1959.

The change may be more efficient, but it is certainly not healthier for anyone concerned.

Clarification, September 1: In 1959, there were more than 100,000 farms for which poultry products constituted the main source of income—50% or more. In 2007, 146,000 farms reported to USDA that they had laying hens. But 125,000 of these farms had less than 50 hens. Only 3,360 farms accounted for 97% of the total laying hens. For the vast majority of farms reporting laying hens, eggs do not account for much of the income. The same is true for broilers. The data illustrate the massive concentration in the poultry industry that has occurred in the last half century.

Aug 29 2010

Further thoughts about the egg recalls

Yesterday’s print edition of the New York Times carried a front-page story on the egg recalls: “U.S. ties farm to Salmonella; town is tense.”  The reporter, Monica Davey, wrote from Clarion, Iowa, the town where the tainted eggs came from.

Her story reminded me of Eric Schlosser’s movie, Fast Food Nation.  The film was intended as fiction, but much of what we are hearing about these egg operations makes it seem like fact.

Here’s what struck me most about her article.

  • So far, nearly 1,500 illnesses have been linked to these eggs, a record.
  • The FDA found matching strains of Salmonella in samples taken from bone meal and barns owned by the DeCoster family.
  • The DeCosters produce 2.3 million dozen eggs per week from their Iowa operations.
  • Iowa is expected to produce 15 billion eggs from 60 million hens this year.
  • The DeCosters have a long history of violations of health and safety laws at their operations.
  • The DeCosters contribute generously to the Clarion community.
  • The plant workers are Mexican.

It’s hard to know where to begin, but the take home lessons seem obvious:

  • Industrial egg operations have gotten out of hand in size, waste, and lack of safety.
  • Immigration issues are very much involved.  If places like this are going to hire immigrants to work in them, we need to protect the rights of those workers.
  • The Senate needs to pass the food safety bill and enable the FDA to do more inspecting.  The accompanying New York Times editorial emphasizes that point.

Today’s New York Times editorial says it all again:

It wasn’t simply that the operation is out of scale with the Iowa landscape. It is out of scale with any landscape, except perhaps the industrial districts of Los Angeles County. What shocked me most was the thought that this is where the logic of industrial farming gets us. Instead of people on the land, committed to the welfare of the agricultural enterprise and the resources that make it possible, there was this horror — a place where millions of chickens are crowded in tiny cages and hundreds of laborers work in dire conditions.

I’m hoping some good will come of all this.  Maybe this is our version of The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s 1906 muckraking book that got Congress to act immediately to pass the Food and Drug Act that governs our food safety system to this day.   The Senate has been sitting on S.510 for more than a year.   For shame!

Addition, August 30: Michele’s Simon’s list of favorite articles on the egg recalls.

Aug 26 2010

Egg industry response to recalls (in translation)

How is the egg industry handling the recalls?

Yesterday, major newspapers ran a full-page ad from “America’s Egg Farmers” (I saw it in USA Today and in the New York Times). The ad displays an egg and text on a white background, nothing more.

The text is spare and notable more for what it does not say than for what it does. Here it is, with my translations in red italics.

A message from America’s Egg Farmers. We want you to think that we are down home farmers of small flocks of hens in a lovely bucolic settings. We think this sounds better than “A message from egg agribusiness.”

You’ve probably heard about the recent egg recall. We wish you hadn’t.

As egg farmers, we’re concerned, and continue to work closely with the FDA and USDA to help ensure the safest and highest quality eggs possible. We don’t have to take any responsibility for this mess. We will let the FDA and USDA deal it.

The potentially affected eggs, which make up less than 1% of all US eggs, have been removed from store shelves. Whew.  The problem is solved. We don’t need to do another thing except work on public relations.

You may be wondering if eggs are safe to eat. We wish you would just forget about this.

Yes, they are.  Fingers crossed!

Thoroughly cooked eggs are thoroughly safe eggs, according to the Center for Disease control and the FDA. Eggs should be cooked until the whites and yolks are firm. We know we are producing unsafe eggs.  It’s not our fault if you don’t know how to cook them.

To find out more information on this recall and the safe handling of eggs, please visit eggsafety.org. When you do, we will tell you how safe our eggs are and how well we treat our hens, and invite you to watch an FDA video on how to cook eggs properly.

And remember, thoroughly cooked means thoroughly safe. It’s not our fault if you don’t listen.

I think the egg industry has a lot to answer for. It needs to do better than this. OK egg industry, how about placing an ad that says something like this:

  • We are devastated that this happened and our hearts go out to everyone who became ill and to their families.
  • We are taking every step to make sure that this never happens again.
  • We are deeply sorry that our industry did not voluntarily adopt safety procedures years ago, especially when the FDA first proposed egg safety rules in 2004.
  • We take full responsibility as an industry for the failure of one of our members to obey the law.
  • We will do everything possible to make sure that the victims of this incident are fully compensated for their medical costs and losses.
  • We fully support food safety legislation and urge the Senate to pass S.510 immediately. It will give the FDA the tools it needs to do its job and help us produce eggs under the safest possible conditions.
  • We apologize to the American public that our eggs are not safe enough and that we have not worked hard enough to make sure that they are safe.

I can dream, can’t I?

Aug 23 2010

The egg recall saga continues

The massive egg recalls so dominate the news today that it’s hard to talk about anything else.

For one thing, FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg took to the tube and appeared on three morning shows:

“We need greater abilities to trace back products to their source,” Hamburg told NBC’s “Today” show this morning. “We need better abilities and authorities to put in place these preventive controls and hold companies accountable.”

She pointed out that it is now one year after the peanut butter recall prompted calls for increased regulation, but the FDA still has limited authority to order recalls, among other things.

What she did not say, is that the Senate continues to tie the FDA’s hands by not passing S. 510.  Fortunately, other commentators (besides me) are making that point loud and clear:

With elections looming, Washington insiders saw little chance that the Senate would complete the bill this fall – until now. The recall of about a half-billion eggs in a salmonella scare may have given new life to the legislation….At the moment—even with salmonella eggs–the FDA can’t force a company to take its products off the market. (If an egg producer violates safety standards, the FDA does have authority to divert shell eggs to a pasteurization process, which egg producers would rather avoid).

In the meantime, the industry-sponsored  Egg Safety Center says:

Consumers are reminded that properly storing, handling and cooking eggs should help prevent food-borne illness. The Egg Safety Center and the Food and Drug Administration recommend that eggs should be fully cooked until both the yolks and the whites are firm, and consumers should not eat foods that may contain raw or undercooked eggs.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this group also said: “Producers are reminded that properly taking care of hens and diligently following food safety plans should help prevent food-borne illness. The Egg Safety Center urges egg producers to immediately implement the FDA’s new regulations for preventing Salmonella that went into effect on July 9.”

And here is USA Today’s take on it (I’m quoted).

Aug 20 2010

The Salmonella-in-eggs situation gets worse

Judging from the number of interview requests today, everyone has figured out that the egg recall is not only awful for the people who got sick but also has something to do with our hopelessly inadequate food safety system and dysfunctional Congress.

The CDC has updated its statistics on the number of illnesses.  Here’s what this epidemic looks like:

About 2,000 cases have been reported but the CDC does not yet know whether these are all related to this particular outbreak.

Here’s what’s special about this particular recall:

  • Salmonella in eggs never used to be a problem until we had industrial egg production that puts hundreds of thousands of hens in close (very close) proximity.
  • The company producing these particular eggs has a long history of rule violations.
  • The company was not required to follow standard food safety plans.  Whatever it had to do was voluntary.
  • The FDA started writing rules for safe egg production more than 10 years ago.  These were quashed. It finally got them done last July.
  • The new safety rules for eggs went into effect this July 9, too late to prevent this outbreak.
  • The FDA’s hands are tied by inadequate legislation and resources.
  • The House passed legislation last August—one year ago—to give the FDA more authority and more resources.  The Senate has been sitting on S.510 ever since.

The moral?  Voluntary doesn’t work.  We need mandatory food safety rules.

And sooner rather than later, no?


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