Better communication could have limited outbreaks of illness
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Federal inspectors knew about salmonella contamination at an egg farm several months before the company was linked to an illness outbreak in 2010, according to an internal USDA audit.
Uncoordinated inspections by federal agencies likely contributed to the massive 500 million egg recall and the 1,900 illnesses brought about by the salmonella outbreak, the audit said.
Better communication among agencies within the USDA and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration "could have potentially limited the scope of the August 2010 recall and related illnesses," according to auditors from the USDA Office of the Inspector General.
Regulation of egg facilities is split among the FDA, which oversees egg-laying barns, and three agencies within USDA that grade eggs, test them for salmonella and supervise distribution.
Despite an executive order more than a decade earlier, auditors found that the USDA "did not ensure a unified approach" by failing to share crucial information among its agencies and the FDA.
More than four months before the recall, inspectors from the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service detected salmonella at an egg company later linked to the outbreak, but did not disclose the finding to other agencies, the audit said.
Similarly, egg-grading officials from the agency's Agricultural Marketing Service discovered "sanitation deficiencies" at the company involved in the recall, such as "rodent activity and high bird manure levels," the audit said. These conditions were noted two weeks before the recall but were not reported to the USDA Food Safety and Inspection Service or the FDA.
Due to the lack of coordination, egg graders weren't aware that eggs they were inspecting were at risk of salmonella contamination, prompting them to label as "quality" 230 million eggs that were later recalled, the audit said.
Auditors also found that FSIS "did not effectively enforce" temperature requirements for stored eggs, letting companies exceed the 45 degree Fahrenheit limit that's intended to suppress the Salmonella enteritidis bacteria.
Warning letters were the strictest action that FSIS ever took against violators, even when their eggs were stored at above 80 degrees F, the audit said.
"As a result of FSIS' lenient enforcement policy, almost 35 percent (213 of 612) of shell egg companies nationwide repeatedly stored shell eggs at temperatures that would not inhibit growth of SE," the audit said.
In a response letter to the audit, an FSIS official said the agency will study the need for better collaboration between agencies and the FDA and evaluate its sanitation and food safety practices, including its approach to storage temperatures.