Cracks in the System: Egg Recall Reveals FDA Flaws

The salmonella egg recall is one of the largest of its kind in recent history, according to the Food and Drug Administration, but is it also a sign of a broken regulatory system?

According to some food safety experts, the answer is a resounding yes.

"Clearly it's a broken system in need of new regulation. This mega-recall is a perfect example of a reaction to a problem, but what we need is preventive control," says David Acheson, managing director of food safety at Leavitt Partners, a Utah-based consulting firm headed by former health and human services secretary Michael Leavitt.

Almost 2,000 reported illnesses stretching back to May are thought to be connected to this salmonella outbreak, and the nationwide recall surged to nearly 500 million eggs Friday after Hillandale Farms in Iowa announced a voluntary recall.

Ironically, the outbreak comes soon after the FDA implemented more stringent egg safety regulations, referred to as "the egg rule," on July 9.

The new regulations were a decade in the making, Acheson says, so it is mere coincidence that their enactment coincided with the salmonella outbreak. It is impossible to say if the crisis could have been prevented had the new egg rule been in place earlier.

Whether it is a bump in the regulatory road or justification for serious policy overhaul, food safety experts agree that this outbreak is a call to action for the FDA.

The Writing on the Hen House Wall

"With 76 million cases of food-borne illness and 5,000 deaths each year, clearly there is much that needs to be done to improve safety regulation," says Carl Winter, director of the food safety program at the University of California, Davis.

While large-scale recalls get a lot of attention, Winter says, it is the daily occurrences -- nearly 200,000 a day -- of other food-borne illnesses that are really more important for regulators.

"Though these large recalls are unfortunate, in a way they provide the opportunity to educate people about the larger issue at hand," he says.

Salmonella Case: Ramping Up Regulation

Both Winter and Acheson say they see the egg recall as part of a pattern -- one that will continue indefinitely until the nation's food system has more stringent standards and better enforcement of regulation.

"We could have had the same conversation about the peanut butter recall last year, or the spinach recall in 2006. If you're looking for one more cry of 'look, we have a problem here,' this is it, and it won't be the last," Acheson says.

So how to improve the system? Prevention is key when it comes to contamination control, experts say.

"Most of the outbreaks in the last years can be traced to a lack of prevention control," Acheson says. "You can mop up the problems down the line, but going to the source, the farm, is essential."

By monitoring food at the early stages of production, contamination issues can be flagged earlier and contained, he says.

The new egg rule is a step in this direction, he says, because it brings more accountability to the farms where the eggs are laid.

The new egg rule may reduce the number of salmonella illnesses each year by 79,000, according to the FDA. It requires farms to establish special pest control, screening, and refrigeration practices.

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