Testimonies and Speeches
 
Testimony of Michael Jacobson, Ph.D.,
Executive Director and Caroline Smith DeWaal
Director of Food Safety before the
Senate Committee on Government Affairs on

 
Related Links:
Egg Safety Cartoon
“Egg Safety: Are There Cracks in the Federal Food Safety System”

Washington, D.C.
July 1, 1999

 

     Good morning. I am Michael Jacobson, Executive Director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). CSPI is a non-profit consumer-advocacy organization with one million members that focuses on nutrition, food safety, and alcohol issues. Accompanying me today is Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at CSPI, who co-authored CSPI’s report, Scrambled Eggs: How a Broken Food-Safety System Let Contaminated Eggs Become a National Food Poisoning Epidemic.1 We have attached a copy of that report to this testimony for inclusion in the hearing record.

     Most consumers think that the government is making sure their food is safe. But the government watchdogs were asleep while eggs contaminated with Salmonella grew into a national public-health epidemic. Fifteen to twenty years ago, a strain of Salmonella called “enteritidis” developed the ability to infect a chicken’s ovaries and enter the egg before it is laid. The advent of that enterprising new strain of bacterium means that it is no longer safe to eat runny eggs, taste cookie dough, or enjoy raw eggs in desserts and salads.

    Today, infected chickens lay an estimated 2.3 million eggs each year seeded with Salmonella inside the shell, any one of which could cause an illness or an outbreak of food poisoning.2 According to data collected by CSPI from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and other sources, since 1990, eggs have been directly linked to at least 123 separate outbreaks of food poisoning, mostly from Salmonella enteritidis (SE) (See Appendix A).3 While those data represent just a partial listing of outbreaks from eggs, they clearly show that the tiny bacterium has fostered a major public health problem.

     A recent risk assessment on eggs conducted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said that SE-contaminated eggs have caused an average of 661,633 illnesses and 331 deaths annually.4 While recent CDC data suggest that the number of outbreaks and illnesses linked to SE has begun to decline5 (a fact probably linked in part to focused consumer education on the hazards of eggs), many more illnesses could be prevented with better government oversight of the egg industry.

     In 1986, CDC first identified SE in eggs as a public-health problem, when a food-poisoning outbreak in seven states sickened more than 3,000 people.6 Since then, the fractured federal food-safety system has taken only baby steps to remedy this serious problem.

     What has happened during the last 13 years? With four government agencies sharing responsibility for regulating eggs and the egg industry, consumers certainly expect that the SE problem would have been dealt with expeditiously. But this may be a case of too many cooks spoiling the broth:

  • The Food and Drug Administration (FDA), at the Department of Health and Human Services, has food-safety oversight of shell eggs and some processed eggs, but rarely inspects those plants.

  • The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), an agency of the USDA, has responsibility over most pasteurized egg products, which pose only a minimal risk, and inspects those plants daily.

  • USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) provides voluntary shell egg grading services and inspects shell egg plants four times a year for cleanliness and quality control.

  • Finally, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) has responsibility for preventing the spread of animal diseases.

     Not one of those agencies has taken the necessary steps to keep eggs safe, either by preventing the spread of SE among chicken flocks, or by diverting SE-contaminated eggs to egg-pasteurization plants.

     This chart highlights just some of the ways that a tiny foodborne bacterium outsmarted the federal government:

  • In 1986, Salmonella enteritidis caused almost 6,000 reported cases of food poisoning.7 Those cases represent just a small fraction of all cases.

  • In 1987, APHIS decided not to establish a mandatory Salmonella control program for egg producers.8 By contrast, in the early 1980s, USDA spent at least $60 million to combat an outbreak of Avian Influenza, a virus that affects poultry but poses no human health threat, by destroying flocks and reimbursing owners.9 For SE, however, USDA opted for a voluntary control program to avoid having to reimburse flock owners for their losses.10 As those instances demonstrate, APHIS has put the health of the poultry industry ahead of the health of consumers.

  • In 1989, 8,500 cases of food poisoning from SE were reported, a 40% increase in just three years.11 Clearly, USDA’s voluntary program was not working. But instead of working together, USDA and FDA simultaneously began developing competing mandatory SE-control programs. FDA officials refused to discuss with APHIS their proposed plan, which required testing of all laying flocks in the U.S., until after FDA had publicly announced it. Later in 1989, APHIS announced its own significantly weaker SE-control program, and FDA withdrew its stronger plan. Clearly, resources were wasted while the agencies developed competing plans and, in the end, the agencies failed to achieve the highest level of public-health protection.

  • By 1991, APHIS finally had its mandatory SE-control program in place. Unfortunately, that program didn’t require on-farm testing for the SE bacteria for the entire egg industry. Egg producers had to clean up their farms only when traceback investigations proved that eggs from their flocks had caused food poisonings or if the laying hens were from already-identified infected breeder flocks.12 To make matters worse, the investigations that traced cases of food-poisoning back to a given producer were expensive and time-consuming, so APHIS completed only a small number each year13.

  • Also in 1991, Congress passed a law requiring eggs to be refrigerated during transportation and storage.14 Refrigeration helps prevent the SE bacteria from multiplying inside infected eggs. However, due to bureaucratic delays and opposition from some parts of the industry, in the last eight years USDA has never enforced that law. (It is finally scheduled for implementation this August, after the House Appropriations Committee threatened to withhold some funding from FSIS.15)

  • In 1992, USDA, the Pennsylvania government, and Pennsylvania egg producers began a voluntary pilot program16. The program required that all participating producers test their flocks for SE bacteria.17

  • In 1995, with over 10,000 cases of food poisoning from SE being reported nationwide, it was clear that APHIS’s program was a failure.18 But the news from Pennsylvania was better. The pilot program apparently reduced the number of SE-infected flocks.19 Despite those encouraging results, at the urging of the egg industry, Congress eliminated USDA’s funding for the pilot program, thereby preventing USDA from expanding the program nationally.20
     In 1997, in an effort to jump-start government efforts, CSPI petitioned the FDA to develop a mandatory on-farm control program for SE in eggs, modeled after the Pennsylvania program.21 CSPI also petitioned FDA to require a warning label on egg cartons alerting consumers to the risk from SE and advising them not to eat eggs raw or undercooked.22

     There has been little visible action since CSPI petitioned the FDA. Last summer, FDA and USDA issued an advance notice of proposed rulemaking that included several of CSPI’s proposals,23 but no new rules have emerged. This August, USDA finally will implement the Congressionally mandated 45-degree refrigeration requirement for eggs during transportation and storage.24 That action comes eight years after Congress first instructed the agency to do so, and two years after Dateline NBC aired a story on egg safety highlighting the agency’s failure to mandate temperature requirements.25

     While those modest actions signal an increased willingness to tackle egg safety, FDA and USDA have so far failed to utilize the most effective public-health measure to combat SE: on-farm Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) programs for shell-egg producers. Though temperature controls and labeling help prevent illnesses from contaminated eggs, on-farm HACCP programs would help prevent eggs from being infected with SE in the first place.

     A mandatory on-farm HACCP system should be the cornerstone of a comprehensive regulatory program for shell eggs. HACCP systems are flexible, they are effective and they are economical, especially when the costs of preventing food poisoning are factored in.

     Under an on-farm HACCP program, eggs from any flocks that test positive for SE could be diverted to egg-pasteurization plants, which sell liquid and powdered egg products. In a risk assessment of the shell-egg production system, researchers estimated that diverting 25 percent of eggs from SE-positive flocks from the shell egg market would reduce human illness by 25 percent,26 and diversion of a greater number of eggs should have a proportionately greater public health impact. On-farm HACCP, coupled with egg diversion, is the only measure that would greatly reduce the number of SE-contaminated shell eggs reaching consumers.

     While an anticipated White House announcement on egg safety will represent the first significant effort to coordinate policy between USDA and FDA, a farm-to-table SE-control program would be far easier to implement if a single agency were responsible for ensuring shell-egg safety. The examples I have cited previously of overlapping responsibilities between agencies, the irrational assignment of inspectors, and agencies developing duplicative and competing SE-control programs illustrate the clear need for more central federal oversight of food safety. That is why we strongly support legislation sponsored by Senator Durbin to unite the federal food- safety programs into a single independent Food Safety Administration.27

     Thank you for your attention to this important public health problem. I would be happy to answer your questions.



References:

1 Elizabeth Dahl and Caroline Smith DeWaal, Scrambled Eggs: How a Broken Food Safety System Let Contaminated Eggs Become a National Food Poisoning Epidemic, (Washington, DC: Center for Science in the Public Interest, May 1997).

2 Salmonella enteritidis Risk Assessment Team, for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, “Salmonella enteritidis Risk Assessment. Shell Eggs and Egg Products. Final Report,” June 12, 1998, p. 1 [hereinafter cited as Salmonella enteritidis Risk Assessment].

3 Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Outbreaks Traced to FDA-Regulated Foods, 1990-1999,” Updated June 18, 1999.

4 Salmonella enteritidis Risk Assessment, p. 1.

5 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Incidence of Foodborne Illnesses: Preliminary Data from the Foodborne Diseases Active Surveillance Network (FoodNet) -- United States, 1998,” Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, Vol. 48, No. 9 (1999), pp. 189-194

6 U.S. General Accounting Office, Food Safety and Quality: Salmonella Control Efforts Show Need for More Coordination, (Washington, DC: U.S. General Accounting Office, April 1992), p. 10.

7 U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Salmonella Isolations from Human Sources by Serotype and Year Reported to CDC, 1985-1995,” Salmonella Surveillance: Annual Tabulation Summary 1993-1995 (Atlanta: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services), Table 3 [hereinafter cited as Salmonella Isolations, 1985-1995].

8 Bruce Ingersoll, “U.S. to Mandate Testing of Poultry for Salmonella,” Wall Street Journal, February 20, 1990, p. B5 [hereinafter cited as Testing of Poultry for Salmonella].

9 Telephone conversation with Dawn Kent, Public Affairs, APHIS, Washington, D.C., April 29, 1997; 9 C.F.R. 53.2.

10 Testing of Poultry for Salmonella, p. B5.

11 Salmonella Isolations, 1985-1995.

12 9 C.F.R. 71, 82.

13 “SE Traceback Program Decreased in Effectiveness, USDA Office of Inspector General Reports,” Food Chemical News, January 15, 1996, p. 23.

14 21 U.S.C. 1034(e).

15 Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, “Refrigeration and Labeling Requirements for Shell Eggs, Final Rule and Request for Comments,” Federal Register, Vol. 63, No. 166 (1998), p. 45663.

16 Pennsylvania Poultry Producers, et al., “Salmonella enteritidis Pilot Project Progress Report,” May 22, 1995, p. 1.

17 Pennsylvania Poultry Federation, “Pennsylvania Egg Quality Assurance Program,” May 1994.

18 Salmonella Isolations, 1985-1995.

19 Allan Hogue, et al., Salmonella enteritidis Review Team Report, Final, January 18, 1997, pp. 1-3, 9-10.

20 Conversation with Robert Tauxe, CDC, Washington, DC, Oct. 30, 1996; “FSIS Budget Set by House, Senate ‘Not Encouraging,’ Official Says,” Food Chemical News, October 2, 1995, p. 43

21 Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Petition for Regulatory Action to Require That (1) Warning Labels About the Risks of Salmonella enteritidis (SE) Be Placed on Shell Egg Cartons and (2) SE Control HACCP Programs Be Implemented on All Egg-Producing Farms,” FDA Docket No. 97-P0197, May 14, 1997, pp. 12-15.

22 Ibid., pp. 9-11.

23 Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, and Department of Health and Human Services, Food and Drug Administration, “Salmonella enteritidis in Eggs, Advance Notice of Proposed Rulemaking; Request for Comments,” Federal Register, Vol. 63, No. 96 (1998), pp. 27502-27511.

24 Department of Agriculture, Food Safety and Inspection Service, “Refrigeration and Labeling Requirements for Shell Eggs, Final Rule and Request for Comments,” Federal Register, Vol. 63, No. 166 (1998), p. 45663.

25 Ibid; Dateline NBC, air date September 17, 1996. Dateline also ran a story last year highlighting the practice of redating and repackaging old eggs. Dateline NBC, air date April 7, 1998, update April 21, 1998. USDA took steps to address that practice in AMS’s voluntary grading program. For other eggs, the practice is allowed.

26 Salmonella enteritidis Risk Assessment, p. 25.

27 Safe Food Act of 1999, S. 1281, 106th Cong.