by Marion Nestle
Aug 19 2010

Salmonella in eggs is old news. But 380 million?

Yesterday, the FDA announced yet another voluntary recall of eggs produced by Wright County Egg in Galt, Iowa.  The first announcement on August 13 covered 228 million eggs.  This one adds 152 million for a grand total of 380 million—so far.

In that first announcement, the Wright company said: “Our farm strives to provide our customers with safe, high-quality eggs – that is our responsibility and our commitment.”

That, however, is not how the New York Times sees it.  According to today’s account, Wright has a long history of “run-ins with regulators over poor or unsafe working conditions, environmental violations, the harassment of workers, and the hiring of illegal immigrants.”

OK, so where are we on safety regulation?  The FDA, after many, many years of trying, finally introduced safety regulations for shell eggs.  These supposedly went into effect on July 9.

I recount the history of FDA’s persistence in the chapter entitled “Eggs and the Salmonella problem” in What to Eat. Check out the table  listing the key events in this history from 1980 to 2005.  It’s not pretty.

Preventing Salmonella should not be difficult.  The rules require producers to take precautions to prevent transmission, control pests and rodents, test for Salmonella, clean and disinfect poultry houses that test positive, divert eggs from positive-testing flocks, refrigerate the eggs right away, and keep records.  These sound reasonable to me, but I care about not making people sick.

Problems with Wright County Eggs started in May before the FDA’s mandatory rules went into effect meaning that the procedures were still voluntary.  The recalls this month are after the fact.  Chances are that most of the recalled eggs have already been eaten.

The CDC is tracking this recall and has logged about 200 reports of illness associated with it so far.  It has plenty to say about Salmonella and its hazards.

According to FoodSafetyNews, the first lawsuits have been filed.

As for food safety legislation that would give the FDA the authority to handle these incidents more efficiently—and, let us hope, maybe even prevent them—it is still sitting in the Senate.  For S.510 watchers, Bill Marler has a helpful new analysis.

The recall, by the way, affects eggs sold under many different brands: Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph’s, Boomsma’s, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms, and Kemps in the first round, and now also James Farms, Glenview, and Pacific Coast.

The good news is that cooking kills Salmonella.  I’m buying eggs at farmers’ markets these days.

Addition: Tom Philpott of Grist on Wright County’s unsavory history.

  • Renee

    I work with several people now who raise chickens and sell eggs as a sideline. We’ve been buying eggs from one of them for quite a while now. It’s getting easier and easier to avoid the supermarket.

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  • Adrian

    We buy all our eggs either directly from local producers or at Whole Foods, and then choose organic & humane ones from local producers. It really isn’t that difficult to produce fresh eggs that are also safe. What is difficult is the current mega-business models that make the whole process into a badly regulated, contaminated, abusive factory.

    After having such good eggs at home, I can’t eat most of them in restaurants anymore. It’s amazing how bad they taste.

    And yes, GO S.510! Nothing more patriotic than protecting the health and safety of all Americans. 🙂

  • Bobby

    Our local public market’s egg sellers get VERY shifty-eyed when we ask him where his eggs are from. They aren’t from his own farm, that much we have learned, they are bought from industrial egg-farming enterprises, despite the own-farm appearance of his stall.

  • I found out my mom was throwing away eggs I brought her from my backyard hens. She didn’t tell me because she didn’t want to hurt my feelings. She just though my eggs couldn’t be “safe” because they didn’t come from a supermarket.

    How far we have come from any common sense on these issues.

  • My husband asked me if our eggs were safe. I was quite happy to remind him they come from local farms.

    I simply will not buy eggs at a regular supermarket.

  • Cindy

    I haven’t bought eggs from a supermarket in years, and I never will again.

  • Hylton

    “I’m buying eggs at farmers’ markets these days.”
    Yes, but it is the rare person who eats exclusively from their farmer’s market shopping bag.

    People travel, people go to restaurants, get take out, eat in other’s homes, eat at lunch spots, have children eating school cafeteria food, eat on college campus, consume prepared items containing eggs like ice cream, muffins, cakes, etc. I reference the last as a matter beyond the scope of salmonella where the baking and processing would kill the bacteria (not in that incident with cookie dough ice cream) but to remind everyone that chickens’ eggs aren’t just confined to personal saucepans and skillets.

    97% of chickens’ eggs in the US come from really awful battery cages, 2% from fairly awful warehouses and a meager 1% from possibly free-range sources; probably a fraction of that 1% includes farmer’s markets and backyards.

    “I only eat food from farmers,” isn’t very convincing, especially for urban lifestyles, nor is it all that helpful when suggested as a realistic solution to large food related issues.

    To quote a recent opinion piece by Jason Sheehan:
    “It is my fear that this kind of thinking–this idea that price is inextricably linked to goodness and morality to the area code of your tomatoes–will create a wicked divide: a permanent culinary underclass full of fat, wheezing poor people working three jobs and still unable to pay $8 for a dozen eggs, lorded over by shining, happy foodies constantly telling them that if they just did all their shopping at the Monterey Market all their troubles would go away.”

    There’s plenty of vitriol in that linked article, I don’t agree with it entirely, but there’s a heavy grain of truth in there as well.

    “Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!”

  • Natalie

    I am also one to appreciate the farmer’s markets right now! I have been buying my eggs there for at least 3 weeks now and the carton before that came from my in laws neighbors. My husband who slightly appreciates my health and food rules but is more understanding as time goes on, says to me “I suppose we don’t have to worry about the egg recall, do we?” No, no we don’t. 🙂

  • I also have been buying eggs at the farmer’s market for a number of years.

    The small and unexplained thing I find so irritating at the end of your post is that this big factory farm CAFO is supplying eggs to other BRANDS that name themselves things like Mountain Dairy, Farm Fresh or Dutch Farms. I think it should also be regulated that a brand not be allowed to use the word farm in their name unless it refers to the farm where the product was raised grown hatched etc. There is obviously no such place as Dutch Farms or Mountain Dairy, and this is disilluioning people into thinking that their food is being raised in humane bucolic settings. It is in a sense false advertising.

  • Meg

    I just have to take a smidgen of issue with the previous comment, referencing “$8 eggs.”
    I don’t think that buying eggs from a farm or farmer’s markets necessarily means you are paying top dollar for eggs. For example, where I live, you can buy eggs from an organic farm whose chickens run around all over the place (truly free-range, no fences) for $4.25/dozen. That is not much more than the supermarket price, and certainly less than the local industrial/crappy supermarket charges for the packaged-in-plastic “cage free” commercial eggs. So it’s not a matter of economics so much as commitment to making a separate stop for eggs, at least here. But we’re not in an urban center, and many of our neighbors (particularly the ones who don’t bring in as much income) keep chickens. It’s common for people who have chickens to sell extra eggs to neighbors for $3/dozen, just to pay for the feed.

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  • Wondering

    I guess not only cooking kills Salmonella, Farmers’ Markets stalls do too.

    Salmonella bacteria live in the intestines of people, animals and birds. Most people are infected with salmonella by eating foods that have been contaminated by feces. Commonly infected foods include:

    * Raw meat, poultry and seafood. Feces may get onto raw meat and poultry during the butchering process. Seafood may be contaminated if it is harvested from contaminated water.
    * Raw eggs. While an egg’s shell may seem to be a perfect barrier to contamination, some infected chickens produce eggs that contain salmonella before the shell is even formed. Raw eggs are used in homemade versions of mayonnaise and hollandaise sauce.
    * Fruits and vegetables. Some fresh produce, particularly imported varieties, may be watered in the field or washed during processing with water contaminated with salmonella. Contamination can also occur in the kitchen, when juices from raw meat and poultry come into contact with uncooked foods, such as salads.

    Many foods become contaminated when prepared by people who don’t wash their hands thoroughly after using the toilet or changing a diaper. Infection also can occur if you touch something that is contaminated and then put your fingers in your mouth. This includes pets — especially birds and reptiles.

  • Unfortunately, farmers market stalls do not kill salmonella. At issue are the conditions in which the birds are raised and kept, and those conditions as environments for the spread of salmonella. CAFOs offer a much more fertile petri dish, if you will, than many of the operations that supply farmers markets.