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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

I have found something I agree with Senator Grassley about – the USDA needs to do its damn job

Grassley.jpgSenator Grassley was quoted in the Wall Street Journal today – “Just because food safety isn’t ‘my job’ doesn’t mean it should be ignored.” I may not agree with him on most things, but on this one, he and I seem to see eye to eye. I just may stop putting my money on the Democrats. Here is why.

Last week Alison Young at USA Today reported that “[at]hough USDA says its authority was limited, the agency’s egg graders were at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms at least 40 hours a week — including before the outbreak — inspecting the size and quality of eggs inside processing buildings.”

However, “USDA regulations say buildings and “outside premises” must be free of conditions that harbor vermin, but the agency takes a narrow view of its responsibilities. Under the USDA’s unwritten interpretation of the regulations, egg graders only look for vermin inside the specific processing building where they are based, said Dean Kastner, an assistant USDA branch chief in poultry grading program.”

This is what the FDA found when it finally entered the Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms:

  • Chicken manure in piles up to 8 feet high under five egg-laying houses. “The outside access doors to the manure pits at these locations have been pushed out by the weight of the manure, leaving open access to wildlife or domesticated animals,” the report said.
  • Chicken house doors blocked by excessive amounts of manure in the manure pits.
  • “Dark liquid which appears to be manure was observed seeping through the concrete foundation to the outside of the laying houses.”
  • Escaped birds using the piles of manure to enter the egg-laying areas.
  • Live rodents sighted by inspectors.
  • Living and dead flies “too numerous to count” in various houses.
  • Living and dead maggots in the manure piles.
  • Multiple rodent holes.
  • Gaps under doors where rodents and insects could enter henhouses.
  • Standing water near manure pits.
  • Liquid manure leaking out of manure pits.
  • Fly and rodent monitoring forms not correctly filled out.

Then this morning, Alicia Mundy and Bill Tomson of the Wall Street Journal report that perhaps those same USDA egg graders “found growing sanitary problems including bugs and overflowing trash earlier this year on the Iowa farm at the center of the national egg recall, but didn’t notify health authorities, according to government documents and officials. … The USDA said it didn’t give notice because “the conditions at the egg plant packing facilities were routine.”

98usda.jpgAccording to the Journal, “[b]esides grading eggs at Wright County egg, the FDA (sic USDA) workers also wrote a daily review of 22 categories of cleanliness. Reviews from last year and April of this year generally found conditions satisfactory. … Around mid-May, however, the marks shifted to “unsatisfactory” in several areas including some deemed “critical.”

The Journal also looked at documents that showed “[o]ver time, conditions grew worse and in July and August, a few critical areas were called unsatisfactory several days a week. The facility, Plant 1720, was supplying many of the eggs that were later recalled. … In written remarks, the USDA graders repeatedly noted problems with bugs, trash and egg residue. “The scanning equip[ment] had egg yolk everywhere,” read an April 29 note. “Lots of bugs dead on the floor,” read another on July 1.”

However, “[t]he graders didn’t stop production. The USDA says that is because they notified the plant manager each morning when they saw issues, and facilities were cleaned up before production began. “The egg graders did their jobs,” the USDA said in a statement.”

Perhaps they “did their jobs.” However, I would like them and their boss, Secretary Vilsack, to meet the 1,500 people sickened and explain that to every one of them.

  • Often times USDA prevue means the product is being given commercial grades and food safety is only a side issue as in the case of Wright County Egg. This is why we need just one agency for food safety. Let the USDA worry about egg size and count and have the FDA worry about salmonella. I know it’s probably not going to happen. Why would the USDA turn over billions of dollars to HHS?

  • Bill, when are you going to follow the dots to the pitiful performance of the FDA and call out Jeff Farrar, Mike Taylor and Margaret Hamburg?
    Show me any evidence that the FDA had even developed an implementation plan for the Final Shell Egg Rule, much less followed through on it?
    The failure of the USDA to fulfill its agreement to forward info to the FDA doesn’t let the FDA off the hook. The person overseeing the promulgation of the Final Shell Egg Rule did NOT do her/his job. There should have been an implementation plan and then an estimate of the cost of implementing it made. As I recall, there is a requirement for this in federal law so that a cost benefit decision can be made. I also recall that as being required before a final rule can be put into force.
    In addition, any such implementation plan should have taken into account the existing presence of the USDA on premises for grading purposes AND called for the scanning and forwarding of the daily sanitation checklist made by the graders to the FDA. There a simple algorithm could have been written to monitor the checklists. Had that been done, the FDA would have had an automatic flag of the increasing frequency of unsatisfactory grades being given. Why not? Was the FDA being careful not to tread on the USDA’s turf?
    @Food Safety Expert. This does NOT in any way support your call for “just one agency for food safety.”
    A single agency does NOT make up for poor supervision of poor performance. The FDA already has clear responsibility for shell eggs. The FDA did NOT fulfill its statutory responsibility; rather, it just wrote another regulation that wasn’t enforced on the big producers. And then when the easily foreseen problem arose, the FDA blew smoke to cover its poor performance and the media fell for it. And people like you enable the continuing pitiful performance of the FDA by repeatedly giving them a “free pass.” What chicken litter!

  • we need just one agency for food. too many can cause a problem.