Egg inspectors failed to raise alarms; government sucks, market microbial food safety at retail

As the number of salmonella-in-eggs illnesses climbed to 1,519, the Wall Street Journal reported last night that U.S. Department of Agriculture experts 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.

The problems laid out in USDA daily sanitation reports viewed by The Wall Street Journal underscore the regulatory gaps that may have contributed to delays in discovering salmonella contamination.

USDA was the only federal body with a regular presence at Wright, but it says it wasn’t responsible for safety. USDA graders were at a Wright egg-packing plant seven days a week to oversee designations such as "Grade A" on egg cartons.

The report validates concerns raised by Alison Young of USA Today last week.

Sen. Charles Grassley, Republican of Iowa, said he had raised questions with Agriculture Secretary (and former Iowa governor – dp) Tom Vilsack about how his department forwards food-safety concerns, adding,

"In my oversight work, I’ve seen far too many federal agencies working in silos, failing to communicate with each other. … Just because food safety isn’t ‘my job’ doesn’t mean it should be ignored."

Would a single-food inspection agency or some federal legislation have empowered the egg graders or the FDAers to do more to limit the salmonella outbreak? Doubtful.

The comments echo those of Craig Wilson, head of food safety at Costco, who told Philip Brasher of the Des Moines Register that Costco had auditors at Wright farms to evaluate animal-welfare condition, adding, "There are a lot of guys going, ‘Hey, wait a minute. They’re finding stuff and our guys were there and they didn’t see it.’ "

In an outbreak situation, especially one with over 1,500 confirmed illnesses, people pay attention to food safety basics. The challenge is to get everyone to pay attention in the absence of an outbreak – it’s that prevention thing.

Which goes to food safety culture and marketing at retail.

David LaCrone of KC Free Press and I chatted about this a couple of weeks ago while a bunch of my kids were with us on the Island. I sound particularly deranged. I blame teenagers.

Dave LaCrone: What do you think the point of the egg recall issue is? I’ve heard people decrying factory farming and mass distribution; some people say “I’m glad I eat organic eggs.” What is your perspective?

Douglas Powell: That has nothing to do with food safety and things that make people barf. Your backyard eggs are going to have salmonella just as much as your factory farm does. All I’ve seen is political and legal opportunism at this point. People take whatever they see and use it to fit their political lens, whether it’s “I want federal legislation passed,” or “I want organic food,” and there’s really not a whole lot of discussion of biology.

DL: In other words, these kinds of risks are inherent pretty much in any kind of egg all the time.

DP: Yeah, and they always have been. Since the recall, you have all these consumer warnings that say you should always eat fully cooked eggs. But you look at the egg people’s literature and they have loving pictures of hollandaise sauce and poached eggs that are barely cooked. They come out now and say “no we’ve always said that” and I’m like “bullshit, you did!”

DL: Is there anything we or the government can do?

DP: I have low expectations of government. I find it amusing that people want to give government more authority, the same people who screwed up Katrina, screwed up the oil well. Why is that a solution? I don’t get it.

DL: Well then, do you think corporate self-regulation is a solution?

DP: No, it’s not an either/or. My solution would be the buying power of individual consumers. What I would like to see is these egg companies or spinach producers, whoever … advertise their microbial food safety record right there on the package. I don’t care if it’s natural, if there’s a picture of a farm or if it was lovingly raised. I want to know if it’s gonna make me barf.

There are billions of meals served every year where people don’t get sick, so obviously they are doing something right. Why not market it? But they won’t because that would imply that other food is unsafe. Well guess what? Other food is unsafe. The best way the consumers can act is through their buying power. Right now they are doing it through the B.S. organic stuff. They are being held hostage by people who don’t make direct claims about food safety but hint at it. Why else do you think they buy natural or local?

DL: Well, I think there are a lot of reasons but I do think it’s a burgeoning thing with parents of young children, especially upper middle-class parents that think that it’s more healthy and safer to eat organic.

DP: Yeah, I have a 20-month-old, does that mean I’m a bad parent for shopping at a grocery store?

DL: I have to ask if your knowledge bleeds over into your choice of where you eat and what to eat? Are there foods you won’t buy or you won’t eat when you go out?

DP: Not much. I have five kids so I have been doing this for a while. I go to the biggest supermarkets I can find because they usually have the quality assurance programs that are demanding of their suppliers: “If you’re gonna sell food in my Wal-Mart you have to meet these microbial standards.” I know the head of food safety at Wal-Mart, they have a very good program. Does anyone who goes to Wal-Mart know that? No.