Yesterday I was speaking with David Hendee of the Omaha World-Herald (along with Larry King, FOX, LA Times, CNBC, CNN, MSNBC, KABC, etc.) about the “Eggbarrassment” to the egg industry and to the government for the latest of what seems like a constant stream of foodborne illnesses and food recalls. As I said to David:
The awareness that a half-billion suspect eggs have been circulating in the food supply is an embarrassment not only for the egg industry but for federal regulators, said Bill Marler, a Seattle attorney who has filed suit alleging illness from tainted eggs at a Wisconsin restaurant. He said he has been retained by two dozen families and was representing a woman hospitalized in California.
“The question is ‘Who was inspecting the plants, if anybody?’” Marler said Monday to The World-Herald. “An outbreak with 550 million bad eggs and 1,300 sickened people has been going on for a while. I suspect nobody was inspecting.’’
Marler said the episode raises many questions about food safety roles played by the FDA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. The FDA inspects shell eggs and the USDA inspects processed eggs.
Marler questioned if that “joint jurisdiction’’ is the best way of assuring the public that eggs will be safer. “If the farms followed the rule, where was the error made? Or is there something wrong with the rule? Tell me what they weren’t doing.”
Yesterday, I suggested that Congress hold hearings on why this outbreak, that began in May, seemed to go unnoticed until mid-August. It seems that at least Congressmembers, Waxman, DeLauro and Stupak are on task asking for documents from Wright County Egg and demanding an explanation of who was inspecting the plant – USDA/FSIS or FDA – or neither? And, they want to know how this outbreak happened? I know I am just a lawyer, but here generally are the issues I would focus on:
1. Why did it take three months for local, State and Federal health officials to act on a four-fold increase in Salmonella Enteriditis cases? Is this a resource issue? A coordination issue? Why did it take so long to link those illnesses to eggs? For food safety a bioterrorism reasons these questions need to be answered.
2. Who was in charge of inspecting these facilities? USDA/FSIS or FDA or both? Were inspection performed? If not, why not?
3. Why were Wright County Egg, and perhaps others, not adhering to the “Egg Rule” in the months before it was officially in place? Why were these common sense ways to prevent egg contamination not adopted by all? Given the outbreak, does the “Egg Rule” need to be strengthened?
We need to understand the reasons for the past before we can truly find a solution to what appears to be a very “egregious” issue.