FDA reports show multiple biosecurity gaps at two egg farms

Aug 30, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – Federal officials today released their initial inspection reports of the two Iowa companies linked to the nation's biggest egg recall, which reveal multiple biosecurity breaches, such as rodent infestation, wild birds in poultry barns, and instances in which chicken manure could have contaminated egg-laying areas.

The inspections—which represent the nation's first under the new shell egg safety rules—revealed that both companies failed to follow and implement their written Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) prevention programs. The national SE outbreak has sickened nearly 1,500 people so far and led to the recall of about 550 million eggs.

Details of the inspections appear on US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 483 forms, which officials said don't cover all of the findings but focus on the ones that amount to violations of the FDA's new egg safety rules, which went into effect for the nation's largest producers in July. At a news conference today, David Elder, director of the FDA's Office of Regulatory Affairs, said the 483 forms show "significant objectionable conditions."

Investigators were at Wright County Egg facilities from Aug 12 through Aug 30 exploring conditions at five sites and at the company's feed mill operation. Elder said.

Live mice were found inside laying houses at four sites, and numerous live and dead flies were observed in egg-laying houses at three locations. Evidence of wild birds, including pigeons, was found at two locations.

Chicken manure accumulated 4 to 8 feet high underneath the cages at two locations. The weight of the manure at the two locations pushed out access doors, allowing open access for wildlife and other farm animals. At one location, uncaged birds were using tall manure piles to access egg-laying areas.

The federal inspectors also saw employees not changing or not wearing protective clothing when moving from laying house to laying house.

At Wright County Egg's feed mill, evidence of wild birds was noted in the milling, mixing system, and storage areas. Raw-ingredient bins had holes open to the environment, with evidence of pigeons near the openings.

Meanwhile, the inspection at three Hillandale Farms locations revealed unsealed rodent holes with evidence of live rodents at one of the facilities, with gaps in walls and doors at other sites. Standing water was observed near a manure pit at one of the locations, and liquid manure leaks were noted at two sites. As at Wright County Egg, uncaged chickens were observed tracking manure into the caged hen areas.

Employees at one of the company's sites didn't document that 19-week-old pullets were raised under SE-monitored conditions

Dr Jeff Farrar, associate commissioner of food protection in the FDA's Office of Foods, told reporters that the FDA received one more positive SE lab result that matches the outbreak strain from spent egg wash water from a facility at Hillandale Farms.

Federal officials didn't comment on what further action they may take, which could include seizure, injunction, or even criminal prosecution, based on the inspection findings.

Dr Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, told reporters that though the FDA has no reason to believe the practices that investigators turned up are common at all egg-producing facilities, inspectors will be inspecting about 600 large egg producers, those that have 50,000 or more laying hens, over the next several months starting in September with what it believes may be the highest-risk facilities.

Aas a component of the new egg rules, the egg inspections were planned before the outbreak and recall occurred. However, Taylor said the experiences gained at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms will help guide FDA inspectors as they make their inspection rounds of other farms over the next 15 months.

"We think individual compliance will reduce the risk, but it's our job to see that it happens," he said.

David A. Halvorson, DVM, an avian health authority at the University of Minnesota who is an expert on biosecurity and food safety, said he had read the FDA's inspection reports and didn't want to comment directly on the investigation, given the likelihood of future litigation related to the outbreak and recall.

But he did say that egg-producer inspections represent new ground for FDA inspectors. "They will likely expect egg farms to pass inspections suitable for food or drug establishments. Passing the inspection is apparently not based on freedom from SE, but compliance with an SE-prevention plan," he said.

So far it's not clear if SE has been detected in the eggs, Halvorson said, adding that the FDA requires egg testing to be completed by 10 days after the detection of a positive environmental sample. "So it's possible the egg testing is complete and the results were negative," he said.

The food safety watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) today called the FDA's 483 inspection report "stomach churning." Caroline Smith DeWaal, the CSPI's food safety director, said, "Equally troubling is that the inspections occurred the month following the date that the new egg-safety regulation went into effect. Both companies involved had been on notice that they needed to meet requirements of the new egg-safety rule for over a year."

The "decrepit" conditions in the hen houses suggests that the companies assumed that FDA inspections are so rare, despite the new egg safety rules, that they saw no urgency to fix their buildings to ensure compliance with the new requirements, DeWaal said.

In other developments, Sparboe Farms, based in Lichfield, Minn., recalled eggs that it received from both Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, according to an Aug 27 notice. The eggs were distributed to grocery stores and foodservice companies in Colorado, Iowa, Illinois, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, and Minnesota under the following five brand names: Albertson, Sparboe Farms, Liborio Market, Shamrock Foods, and Glenview Farms.

Eggs subject to the recall include large 6-egg to 30-dozen bulk cases of eggs that were produced on Aug 2, 3, and 7. The recall also applies to extra-large eggs packed in 12-dozen cartons that were produced between Jul 30 and Aug 6.

See also:

Aug 30 FDA 483 inspection report on Wright County Egg

Aug 30 FDA 483 inspection report on Hillandale Farms

Aug 30 CSPI press release

Aug 27 Sparboe Farms recall notice

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