Officials release food safety plan, egg safety rules

Jul 7, 2009 (CIDRAP News) – As President Obama's Food Safety Working Group announced its key steps today, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) unveiled sweeping new egg safety rules designed to reduce the burden of Salmonella illnesses in humans.

The measures are part of the Obama's administration's focus on food safety issues, one that follows several recent high-profile outbreaks involving such foods as peanuts, pistachios, hot peppers, and ground beef.

Key food safety steps
At a press conference in Washington, D.C., today, administration officials announced the findings of the working group that was appointed by Obama in March. Vice President Joe Biden, flanked by US Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and US Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack, said keeping food safe is a basic government responsibility.

"Our food safety system must be updated—1 in 4 people get sick every year due to foodborne illness, and children and the elderly are more at risk," he said in a press release.

Sebelius added: "Instead of spending their time trying to get kids to eat healthier food, too many parents and families are worrying about whether their food is safe to eat in the first place,"

Vilsack said every American is affected by efforts to make the nation's food supply safer. "We owe it to the American people to deliver on President Obama's bold promise to greatly enhance our food safety system, moving our approach into the 21st century."

The working group's key steps for improving food safety include:

  • Tasking the HHS and USDA with developing tougher standards to reduce Salmonella contamination in eggs and poultry
  • Reducing Escherichia coli contamination by having the USDA tighten enforcement at beef facilities and having the FDA develop new industry guidance for leafy greens, tomatoes, and melons
  • Building a new national traceback and response system that provides clear guidance and quicker safety alerts for consumers
  • Improving federal food safety oversight and appointing new food safety positions in key agencies

Egg regulations target Salmonella
Shortly after the administration released the Food Safety Working Group's game plan, FDA officials announced at a press conference final egg safety rules designed to reduce illnesses and deaths caused by Salmonella Enteritidis. The rules were first proposed in September 2004.

Initial refrigeration requirements in the 1990s limited the growth of bacteria, but haven't prevented initial contamination from occurring, the FDA said in a press release today.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, MD, told reporters that reducing Salmonella Enteritidis in eggs is an important element of the Food Safety Working Group's goals and projected that the new regulations could prevent 79,000 cases of foodborne illness each year and 30 deaths. "Preventing harm to consumers is our first priority," she said.

"This may seem pretty straightforward, but this has taken a long time," she said. "This will really make a difference and will be a great benefit to public health at a small cost to consumers."

The new rules apply to all egg producers with at least 3,000 laying hens, which account for 99% of eggs sold in the United States, FDA officials said. Producers that have 50,000 or more laying hens must comply with the rule within 12 months of its publication in the Federal Register, and those with between 3,000 and 50,000 birds have 36 months to comply.

The new rule requires egg producers to:

  • Restrict chick and young hen purchases to suppliers who monitor for Salmonella
  • Establish rodent, pest control, and other biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of Salmonella
  • Conduct Salmonella testing in poultry barns; positive tests warrant further testing over the next 8 weeks, and if follow-up tests are positive, eggs must be destroyed or tagged for nonfood use
  • Clean and disinfect poultry barns that test positive for Salmonella
  • Refrigerate eggs at 45°F during storage and transport no later than 36 hours after the eggs are laid.

Stephen Sundlof, DVM, PhD, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said the new rules are modeled after voluntary quality assurance programs that include egg producers in several states, accounting for about half of the nation's egg production. He added that the new rule will bring uniformity to how all eggs are produced in the United States.

Nancy Bufano, an official in the FDA's dairy and egg safety division, said the biggest change is probably the refrigeration part of the rule. Currently, egg producers are only required to refrigerate the eggs as soon as they are packaged for consumers.

The FDA estimates that the rule will provide a $1.4 billion public health savings at an annual cost of $81 million to producers, or less than 1 cent per dozen eggs.

Hamburg said individual consumers still have an important role to play in egg safety by properly refrigerating eggs, using safe handling techniques to avoid cross-contamination, and by disposing of products that appear spoiled.

Cautiously optimistic reactions
Foodborne disease expert Craig Hedberg, PhD, of the University of Minnesota, said the new egg regulations represent a reasonable set of guidelines. But because some researchers calculate a much higher overall Salmonella burden—1 to 2 million cases and about 500 deaths—the expected benefits of the rules might not be as dramatic as some experts predict.

Without a dramatic decrease in illnesses, the plateau in Salmonella reduction that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified in its FoodNet data may likely persist, he said Hedberg, a professor in the Division of Environmental Health Sciences of the School of Public Health.

Previous temperature-control steps have helped mitigate Salmonella amplification in eggs, but food safety experts would like to see more prevention of the initial contamination, Hedberg said. "Implementation of the steps in these regulations will likely help but will not eliminate the problem entirely."

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) issued an e-mail statement today lauding the new egg regulation and the work of the Obama administration's Food Safety Working Group. CSPI said today's two announcements bode well for reform legislation moving through Congress.

"For far too long, FDA has not had the staff, funding, or even the legal authority to get the job done," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, CPSI's food safety director, in the statement. "Things have gotten so bad that even the food industry is clamoring for reform, which is not surprising as consumer confidence in the food industry has fallen to less than 20%."

Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority (STOP), an advocacy group based in Northbrook, Ill., that works to prevent illness from foodborne pathogens, in a statement today sent to journalists lauded the working group's efforts. Donley's 6-year-old son died from an E coli O157:H7 infection in 1993.

"This is the first time in a long time I've seen a coordinated effort by the government to prevent other families from suffering a tragedy like mine," she said. "The devil's in the details, however, and we look forward to hearing more specifics."

See also:

President's Food Safety Working Group Web site

Jul 7 White House press release

Jul 7 FDA press release

Sep 22, 2004, CIDRAP News story "FDA proposes rules to reduce Salmonella in eggs"

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