Egg Recall Showdown: Farm Executives Answer to Congress

Two executives and FDA food commissioner prepare to testify on egg safety.

ByABC News
September 21, 2010, 6:03 PM

Sept. 21, 2010— -- Members of a congressional investigation panel plan to demand answers today from executives of two egg farms implicated as the source of the salmonella outbreak that sickened nearly 1600 people and led to a nationwide egg recall.

Austin DeCoster, owner of Wright County Eggs, and Hillandale Farms President Orland Bethel are scheduled to testify before the Subcommitee on Oversight and Investigation today. Both farms voluntarily recalled more than a half-billion eggs in August. Neither farm's eggs are back on the market.

"They are not producing shell eggs for the fresh market unless we say it's safe," Michael Taylor, the Food and Drug Administration's deputy commissioner for foods, who is also expected to testify today, told ABC News' "Good Morning America."

Salmonella victims Sarah Lewis and Carol Lobato are scheduled to share their stories with the panel.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., who heads the subcommitee, said he plans to ask executives what they have done to ensure the safety of their eggs.

"I would ask these egg farmers where was their concern for the health and safety of the American people," Stupak said.

New regulations enacted in July 2009 gave farms a year to test and fix any potential safety concerns. But as the deadline approached, farms like Wright and Hillandale, both located in Iowa, reported salmonella and prompted FDA inspections.

"Facilities were not clean," Taylor said. "They found rodent entry [and] a host of conditions that contributed to contamination of the eggs."

At one farm, a pile of chicken manure reached 8 feet high. Pathogens in manure can live for 200 days and spread rapidly through the food or water supply.

Last week, the house panel recieved documents that showed Wright County Egg's facilities routinely tested positive for salmonella contamination in the two years before the outbreak.

"We know foodborne illnesses kill about 5,000 people a year in this country," Stupak said. "Isn't it time we tackle this?"

The FDA hopes the testimony today will push the Senate to approve stringent food safety legislation that would give the agency more oversight, Taylor said.

"We need an overhaul of food safety laws," Taylor said. "The FDA is working under laws that go back to the 1930s that mostly give us the ability to react to problems. We want to be in the business of preventing food safety problems."

Although the FDA says the company recalled all of the tainted eggs, salmonella may still exist in eggs that were sold before the August recall.

ABC News Senior Health and Medical Editor Dr. Richard Besser recommended discarding any eggs cartons bought before August.