USDA Didn't Notify FDA of Conditions at Salmonella Egg FacilitySep 10, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP
Even though egg inspectors from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) saw deplorable conditions at Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa, they never notified health authorities. Wright County Egg, along with Hillandale Farms, also of Iowa, has recalled millions of shell eggs since mid-August. According to the Centers for Disease Control, at least 1,470 reported illnesses are likely to be associated with the multi-state Salmonella outbreak.
According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, the USDA and the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) have a formal understanding in which the USDA is supposed to notify the FDA of sanitary issues. If the USDA notifies the FDA that it has stopped grading eggs due to a health issue, the FDA sends inspectors to the farm, and can ask the farm to stop shipping eggs.
According to an Associated Press report, USDA employees were based next to areas where roughly 7.7 million caged hens laid eggs at the two operations. As part of an industry-paid program, the USDA egg graders were at the facilities at least 40 hours per week.
According to USDA daily sanitation reports obtained by The Wall Street Journal, egg inspectors observed bugs and overflowing trash earlier this year at Wright County Egg Plant 170. That facility produced many of the recalled eggs.
Reviews from last year and April of this year generally found conditions satisfactory, the Journal said. But in May, the marks shifted to “unsatisfactory” in several areas including some deemed “critical,” and reports filed in June and July were even worse. In spite of this, the USDA inspectors did not stop production at the facility.
The USDA said it didn’t give notice because “the conditions at the egg plant packing facilities were routine,” the Journal said. USDA officials also maintained that inspectors notified the plant manager each morning when they saw issues, and facilities were cleaned up before production began.
It isn’t clear whether the sanitation problems identified by the USDA graders had anything to do with the Salmonella contamination, the Journal said. But critics of the agency say the USDA missed an opportunity to raise an early alarm about safety that might have brought about a more timely federal response. In August, when the FDA finally inspected Wright County Egg facilities, the agency also found many unsanitary conditions including mice, maggots and manure piles as high as eight feet.