Food safety turns partisan in House hearing on tainted eggs

Sep 22, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – The US Senate's battle over pending food safety legislation erupted in a House of Representatives committee hearing on Salmonella in eggs today, where two illness victims gave a face to the outbreak and farm owners faced public questions for the first time, with one of them blaming feed ingredients for the contamination.

Though the House passed a bipartisan  food safety bill—a measure expected to give the Food and Drug Administration more authority to enforce food safety rules—in July 2009, members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce clashed today on who is to blame for stalling a Senate vote on its version of the bill.

Democratic members of the committee charged that Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is holding up the bill, but Republican Rep. Michael Burgess countered that Democratic Sen. Harry Reid has held up the bill by not bringing it to the floor for a vote. The committee majority blocked a statement by Coburn from being admitted into today's testimony, and an attempt by Burgess to introduce the text during witness questioning prompted a heated exchange between the committee chair, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., and Burgess over protocol.

The political fireworks rivaled the dramatic appearance of the two owners of the farms at the center of the massive egg recall—flanked by a group photographers and chided by a brief but loud protest from a consumer group—for the first time since the recalls were initiated in the middle of August. The recalled eggs have been linked to a nationwide Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) outbreak that has so far sickened at least 1,608 people, according to the latest estimate from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Legislators revealed today that lab tests have found SE inside some of the eggs and in samples from chickens. So far the FDA has publicly shared details about only seven positive samples, all from environmental sources.

Two of the victims testified at today's hearing. Sarah Lewis, a 30-year-old mother of two from Freedom, Calif., said she and her sister got sick at the end of May after they ate a bakery-made dessert tart that contained eggs at a graduation party. She said she was hospitalized twice with the SE infection and developed a Clostridium difficile infection after her second stay.

Lewis said she is still recovering. "Salmonella is still raging and present in my body." She told legislators that her family owns a butcher shop and is proud of their adherence to safety standards and a clean shop, adding that she was shocked at the conditions on the two egg farms as portrayed in inspection reports and in photographs displayed at today's hearing. "We give our customers tours. We're not afraid to show what we do," she said.

Carol Lobato, a 77-year-old grandmother from Littleton, Colo., told the group she and two of her grandsons got sick in July after eating rattlesnake cake appetizer at The Fort restaurant in Colorado. She said the cakes were served with a relish that contained raw egg. She said she was hospitalized for 5 days with septic shock. "This is still not over for me. I've lost my stamina," she said, adding that she also still has a host of gastrointestinal problems.

Lobato said she grew up on an Iowa farm that had chickens and was surprised when she heard about manure and pest conditions on the two farms that recalled the eggs. She said she hoped her appearance at the hearing would press the Senate to pass its food safety bill. "If they don't, we will all be here again," she said.

Austin DeCoster, owner of Wright County Egg, began his opening statement with an apology. "We were horrified to learn that our eggs may have made people sick," he said. "I have prayed several times a day for all of these people."

When pressed by legislators about his company's long history of food safety and other infractions, DeCoster said his company got big before it started adopting more sophisticated methods for preventing egg contamination. Over the last decade the company has focused on food safety measures such as employee training, additional monitoring, hiring experts to guide prevention efforts, and poultry vaccination.

His son, Peter DeCoster, the company's chief operating officer, said the firm established an SE risk reduction program in July 2009. "We were stunned to learn our eggs were responsible [for the outbreak]," he said.

Though the company isn't certain about the root cause of the contamination, it believes the source could be tainted meat and bone meal that it received from a third-party supplier for use in feed. An earlier FDA inspection report from the farms said feed samples tested positive for the outbreak strain, but FDA officials quoted in a media report said so far the pathogen has not been found in bone meal from a Minnesota rendering plant that supplied the Iowa company.

Some legislators said blaming an outside source is symptomatic of the company not taking responsibility for the egg contamination problems. Rep Henry Waxman, D- Calif., said, "You're refusing to take responsibility for a very poor facility."

Meanwhile, Orland Bethel, president of Hillandale Farms, the second farm linked to the outbreak, chose not to make an opening statement and invoked the Fifth Amendment's protection against self-incrimination when committee members questioned him. Stupak and Burgess tried to question him about Hillandale's ties to DeCoster's farms.

Duane Mangskau, production manager at Hillandale, fielded some of the questions about the relationship between the two companies, noting that the DeCosters own Hillandale's Alden farm and share operations at the West Union farm. He said Hillandale's role is primarily to market the eggs and that it has severed some of its business agreements with Wright County Egg.

A lesson legislators are learning from recent outbreaks is that third-party food safety inspections don't always verify food safety, said Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo. She pointed out that the food safety audit company that the DeCosters used, AIB International, based in Manhattan, Kan., is the same company that audited Peanut Corporation of America, the company responsible for a 2008-09 Salmonella outbreak linked to peanut butter that sickened hundreds of people. She said AIB gave both PCA and Wright County Egg superior grades right before product recalls occurred.

Several legislators aired their frustration over reports of poor communication between the FDA and the US Department of Agriculture, which they said may have obscured ongoing disease threats at the farms. Some also pressed Joshua Sharfstein, MD, principal deputy commissioner of the FDA, to detail how pending food safety reform could improve inspections.

Sharfstein said the new law would boost the effectiveness of inspections, give the agency more penalties to help enforce compliance, and ease the traceability of food contamination.

"Here's my bottom line: We need this bill to prevent another outbreak," he said.

See also:

Sep 22 House Committee on Energy and Commerce Salmonella hearing materials

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