Growing Concern About Tainted Eggs After Recall
Published: August 20, 2010
Reed Saxon/Associated Press
Scott Perry for The New York Times
The latest action — the third recall announcement in two weeks for eggs — is bound to shake the confidence of consumers rattled by a succession of food safety scares in recent years, most prominently for foods like beef and lettuce.
The idea that half a billion suspect eggs have been circulating in the food supply comes as an embarrassment for the egg industry and federal regulators. New egg safety rules went into effect in July that the Food and Drug Administration had said would prevent tens of thousands of salmonella illnesses a year.
“You have to treat eggs with the assumption that they’re contaminated with salmonella,” said Carol Tucker Foreman, a food safety expert of the Consumer Federation of America. “We may all object to the fact that we have to treat food like toxic waste, but if we don’t want to get sick, and especially if you have someone in your house that’s immune-suppressed, you have to handle things carefully and demand that the standards be set higher.”
Hillandale Farms, one of the nation’s largest egg companies, said it was recalling eggs produced at two Iowa sites, in some cases as far back as April.
It follows an even larger recall by Wright County Egg, also of Iowa, which recalled 228 million eggs on August 13, and then expanded its recall by an additional 150 million eggs on Wednesday.
Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of cases of salmonella since May have been linked to tainted eggs, according to federal health officials. Investigators are continuing to look at the clusters of illness to see whether any other egg producers might be linked to the outbreak.
Investigators are also looking at ties between the two egg farms operated in Iowa by Hillandale and the five farms run by Wright County Egg, which is owned by the DeCoster family, a major egg producer.
“Hillandale Farms of Iowa and Wright County Egg Farm share a number of common suppliers because they are in the same industry in the same state,” Hillandale said in a statement late Friday. The company said that it bought young birds, called pullets, and feed from a company run by the DeCosters.
F.D.A. officials said the chicks used by both farms came from a hatchery that participated in a national program meant to ensure that its chicks were free of salmonella infection.
Chickens can get salmonella from rodents in hen houses, from contaminated feed or from workers who may not follow sanitary procedures. Infected hens can lay eggs with the bacteria inside them, and people can become sick if they eat tainted eggs that are not fully cooked.
Health experts say that people should make sure that they cook eggs fully to destroy any possible bacteria and wash their hands and utensils after handling raw eggs.
Salmonella commonly results in diarrhea, vomiting and stomach cramps. In rare cases, it can lead to more serious conditions, like arterial infections.
Even though the recall numbers are large, they represent a small fraction of national egg production. The recalled eggs have also been produced over several months, meaning that most have long since been cooked and eaten.
The recalls at both companies stem from a single large outbreak of salmonella.
Sherri McGarry, a director at the F.D.A.’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said federal and state officials were working hard “to get contaminated product off the market so consumers are protected and public health is protected.”
She said the Hillandale recall was prompted when Minnesota officials traced a cluster of illnesses in that state to the eggs from the company’s Iowa plants.
Doug Schultz, a spokesman for the Minnesota health department, said seven people had become ill with salmonella in mid-May after eating chile rellenos at a Mexican restaurant called Mi Rancho in Bemidji, Minn. He said that investigators established a connection to Hillandale eggs on May 24.
It was not clear why the F.D.A. did not act on the information sooner.
The Wright County eggs have been distributed nationwide. The Hillandale eggs went to 14 states, according to the company: Arkansas, California, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin. They were sold under the brand names Hillandale Farms, Sunny Farms, Sunny Meadow, Wholesome Farms and Werst Creek.
Hillandale also operates plants outside Iowa, but those plants were not included in the recall. One complication for consumers is that some of the Wright County firm’s eggs were sold in cartons bearing the Hillandale name.
The outbreak and the recalls, both by far the biggest in years, have stunned the egg industry. “Now, all of a sudden, we’ve got this big one going on,” said Howard Magwire, vice president of United Egg Producers, an industry organization. “Something happened here that shouldn’t have happened.”
Darrell Trampel, a poultry veterinarian at Iowa State University, said that the problem should not be viewed as something unique to Iowa.
“The production methods for large commercial egg operations are very, very similar all across the United States,” he said. “It’s just that Iowa is the biggest egg-producing state in the nation by a large margin. The probability of things happening here is greater because we have more chickens.”
In a separate notice Friday, the Food and Drug Administration issued an urgent recall of a type of frozen fruit pulp sold under the La Nuestra and Goya brands.
The pulp, made of the tropical fruit mamey and originating in Guatemala, has been linked to an outbreak of typhoid fever that has sickened nine people in California and Nevada, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.