Testimony of Michael Jacobson and Caroline Smith DeWaal before the Senate Committee on Government Affairs on “Egg Safety: Are there Cracks in the Federal Food Safety System”

 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 that focuses on nutrition, food safety, and alcohol issues and is supported by our one million members. Accompanying me today is Caroline Smith DeWaal, our Director of Food Safety.

     Most consumers think that the government is ensuring that 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 an egg before it is laid. The advent of that enterprising 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 contaminated eggs each year, any one of which could cause an illness or an outbreak of food poisoning. According to data collected by CSPI from the 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). CDC has reported that since 1985, there have been nearly 800 SE-outbreaks, largely associated with eggs and egg dishes. A recent risk assessment on eggs conducted by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) said that SE-contaminated eggs have caused an average of 660,000 illnesses and 330 deaths annually. While preliminary CDC data from a few areas around the country suggest that the number of illnesses linked to SE has declined, 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. Since then, unfortunately, no government agency has mounted an intelligent, counter-attack on SE. Instead, four competing government agencies have dropped the ball and failed to protect consumers. Today, there is no government-mandated SE-testing program for eggs or laying flocks; no mandatory expiration date for shell eggs; no ban on repacking and redating old eggs; no mandatory refrigeration of eggs throughout the food chain; and no label on egg cartons to alert consumers. The government has simply failed to take the necessary steps to keep eggs safe.

     Instead, the history of government inaction shows a record of overlapping responsibilities between agencies, the irrational assignment of inspectors, and several agencies developing duplicative and competing SE-control programs. Eggs provide one of the best illustrations of the need for a centralized federal framework for food-safety, as proposed by Senator Durbin last week in the Safe Food Act of 1999.

     In 1997, in an effort to jump-start government efforts, CSPI petitioned the FDA to develop a mandatory on-farm control program for eggs, modeled after an effective state program. CSPI also petitioned FDA to require a label on egg cartons alerting consumers to the risk from SE and advising them to cook eggs thoroughly.

     There has been little visible action since CSPI petitioned the FDA, but we hope that this hearing will change that. The actions that the agencies mentioned today are important but not sufficient. In a critical omission, FDA and USDA have failed to utilize the most effective public-health measure: an on-farm SE-monitoring and control program. Though temperature controls and labeling help prevent illnesses from contaminated eggs, on-farm monitoring and control programs — like HACCP — would help prevent eggs from being infected with SE in the first place.

     Under an on-farm program, eggs from flocks that test positive for SE would be diverted to pasteurization plants, where they could be rendered harmless. Researchers estimated that diverting to pasteurization 25 percent of eggs from SE-positive flocks would reduce SE infections by 25 percent. Diversion of a greater percentage of eggs should have a proportionately greater public health impact. On-farm HACCP, including egg diversion, is the only measure that would greatly reduce the number of SE-contaminated shell eggs reaching consumers.

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