The recent publicity and recalls of eggs create potentially catastrophic implications for egg producers, both large and small. Although the media hysteria is largely just that – hysteria – it cannot and should not be ignored. The recent announcement that Congress wants to hold hearings on the issue only adds fuel to the fire. So, what should an egg producer be doing now to protect itself and what should that producer do if the government, plaintiff’s lawyers or the media come calling?
But first, the facts. Eggs are an animal origin food. If the consumer eats them raw or undercooked, the naturally occurring bacteria that exist in the food may cause distress to the human body. This is true of beef, fish, chicken breasts and, yes, eggs. But in terms of salmonella contamination, eggs are safe; the best science shows that at most 1 in 20,000 eggs, or .0005%, contain SE (salmonella enteriditis). Eggs are a safe food; the recent voluntary recalls represent a fraction of 1% of eggs sold. And most incidents of illness, although potentially traceable to eggs, are the result of poor food preparation practices.
These facts, however, don’t mean much if your farm is the target of a government inspection, plaintiff’s lawsuit or a visit from the local media. Here are some suggestions on how to deal with these unpleasant events.
- If government inspectors show up, cooperate. Ask to see their credentials and try to find out why they’re inspecting. Is there a trace back to your operation? Is there a complaint that caused this or is it a random inspection? Speak to the person in charge. Immediately start a diary of all inspection activities. Appoint a contact person for the inspection team and your operation and request that all communication go through those contacts only.
- If you’re contacted by the media, don’t make the mistake of chasing the TV crew off your farm with a baseball bat. A producer did that once and although he may have felt justified in doing so, he was rewarded with television coverage of him screaming and waving the bat. An Indiana producer recently explained to a radio audience the inherent safety of eggs as a food product and the advantages of a vertically-integrated operation. He did his operation, and the industry as a whole, a service by explaining the facts of egg production and food safety in a calm and factual manner. This doesn’t mean you should talk to the media; it only means that if you do, leave the bat at home and be prepared with facts.
- Consider placing a label on the cartons and flats that instructs the eggs be cooked to 160 degrees F before consuming, if you don’t already do this.
- Be certain that your operation is in full compliance with the new FDA regulations which were effective July 9. Also assure compliance with the United Egg Producer’s guidelines.
- Document FDA and UEP compliance. Conduct regular inspections of barns and processing areas and prepare detailed written reports of those inspections.
- Consider increasing biosecurity and housekeeping measures. Exceeding FDA regulations and UEP guidelines can be a positive factor if your operation becomes a target.
- If a problem is detected, consider a voluntary recall. This can be a complicated process and you should seek expert assistance in determining whether to initiate the recall and how to perform it.
- If you are sued by a consumer who claims to have been made sick by your eggs, immediately hire experienced counsel and conduct a thorough investigation. Most incidents are caused by improper food-handling practices and the facts surrounding the incident are time sensitive. The sooner a thorough investigation can be conducted, the more likely it is that the facts will provide a defense to the plaintiff-consumer’s claim.
- If you are sued by a consumer, do not talk to the media. Simply state that your policy is not to discuss pending litigation. If anyone talks to the media about law suits, it should be your lawyer.
- Don’t accept an invitation to discuss this issue before a Congressional Subcommittee.
These steps are not a panacea and are not all-inclusive. But they are a good start toward protecting egg producers in this difficult and uncertain time.