Responding to media reports that workers at the egg facilities linked to a recent nationwide Salmonella outbreak complained about food-safety problems, Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) has written to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack asking whether these complaints were investigated and whether the agency has a process for reporting safety violations. Grassley acknowledges that USDA places only non-food-safety personnel at egg farms to grade the eggs. Still, he asks whether “there is an established process for USDA employees to report food safety concerns to the FDA [Food and Drug Administration, which has the responsibility for food safety] when they fall outside of USDA’s jurisdiction?”
According to press reports, two former Wright County Egg facility employees said they told USDA employees that they had observed problems such as leaking manure, rodents and dead chickens at the facilities. They also apparently claimed that USDA employees “would just turn their heads” when told about the problems and advised the egg employees to ignore them. The FDA report that followed its investigation of the outbreak revealed facility conditions that included rodent holes in hen house walls, live rodents, live and dead flies too numerous to count, holes and gaps in doors and walls allowing wildlife access, pigeon roosts in air vents, standing water, leaking manure pits, recordkeeping violations, and numerous sanitation violations.
Former and current Wright County Egg employees reportedly indicated that mouse and fly infestations noted in the FDA report were not new to the facilities and dated back at least 10 years. They also claimed that high ammonia levels caused chronic health issues and that protective and safety equipment was not consistently available. An Iowa State University poultry veterinarian, who said that mice, flies, dead chickens, and ammonia are common in large egg-laying facilities, indicated that they must be controlled and maintained at safe levels. Wright County Egg reportedly released a statement claiming that it uses best practices and regularly monitors for safety issues. “It has been and is our commitment—and our responsibility—to properly operate our farms,” a spokesperson said.
Wright County Egg has reportedly suggested that the Salmonella contamination could have started in bone meal, a feed ingredient supplied by a different company. That company has responded that it heat processes the bone meal and contends that the meal was uncontaminated when shipped. According to a news source, FDA’s criminal division and the Justice Department have joined the ongoing investigation, extending it beyond a focus on farm practices. See The New York Times, August 30, 2010; The Wall Street Journal, September 1 and 2, 2010; The Associated Press, September 3, 2010; The Des Moines Register, September 9, 2010.