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Debunking the Food Safety Magazine Article on Salmonella and Eggs

12/24/2018

Every few months an article appears either in print or more usually on the web deprecating the intensive egg-production industry. Motivation for these diatribes and their veracity is usually based on welfare considerations, environmental concerns, veganism or their combination. The article that appeared in the December 2018 edition of the trade journal Food Safety entitled Walking on Eggshells: Do You Know the Risks? had a different genesis but was overtly disparaging of our industry and our product.

 

Authored by an ambulance-chasing attorney Jory D. Lange and his paralegal Candess Zona-Mendola the article was apparently intended to drum up business for the Lange Law firm It lacked any redeeming message with respect to promoting food safety. The Lange opus is replete with factual errors and displayed a profound ignorance of the epidemiology of egg-borne salmonellosis and a wanton disregard of facts.

 

The article as with others of a similar ilk conflates the 2010 outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) infection affecting more than 2,000 consumers with the 2017 minor outbreak of Salmonella Braenderup infection responsible for about 50 cases.

 

The Wright County, event resulted from the venality and depraved indifference of Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son Peter who knowingly distributed potentially contaminated eggs from their Iowa farms through distributors, brokers and dealers. DeCoster and his activities were never representative of our industry. He has been embroiled in civil lawsuits and state and federal sanctions for over 30 years. The combined portfolio of fines and settlements attests to his status as a scofflaw, eventually serving prison time for placing profit over prudence. He and his actions should have been formerly repudiated by the Industry in 2010, having crashed a seasonally rising market, depressing consumption and market price over a four-month period, depriving producers of over $100 million in revenue. DeCoster is unfortunate history (we hope) and was totally out of step with our industry, then and now.

 

Apart from the DeCoster- SE outbreak there have been no reported cases of egg-borne SE infection since introduction of the FDA Final Rule on Prevention of Salmonella implemented in 2011 attributed to compliant farms holding flocks of over 3,000 hens. In point of fact the incidence rate of egg-borne salmonellosis was in sharp decline during the late 2000s following the introduction of Egg Quality Assurance Programs adopted by many state egg associations and individual companies. Published annual CDC data on food-borne infections and their vehicles should have been reviewed by Lange and Ms. Zona-Mendola before asserting and implying that U.S. eggs are unsafe.

 

The recent outbreak of Salmonella Braenderup was totally and completely unpredicted. With now previous cases of this rare serotype being associated with eggs. Although receiving inordinate publicity the case was associated with an infinitesimal attack rate. Consider that the complex in question was producing 1.7 million eggs per day consumed by a population in the mid-Atlantic and northeastern states estimated to be 100 million over a six-month period. Only 43 cases were documented by the CDC between November 15th 2017 and May 16th 2018 confirming an attack rate of 8 per 100 million  population per month. The outbreak may not have been detected before introduction of FoodNet in 1995 and the application of whole genome sequencing to trace the source of an infection from 2016 onwards.

 

 The authors of the Walking on Eggshells article make considerable mention of the findings of the FDA 483 Warning Letter issued to the Company. In point of fact there were deficiencies in hygiene and biosecurity at the complex as disclosed during a multi-day audit by a somewhat inexperienced investigation team. The inspection incorporated taking hundreds of samples for microbiological culture. Only a few sites in the plant and manure pits in two houses yielded the pathogen suggesting other than extensive farm and plant contamination. Implicating flies and a few mice that were present on the farm as a contributory factor in the outbreak would only have been valid had the CDC inspectors actually sampled insects and rodents. Reference to a worker observed touching his intergluteal cleft, as cited in the FDA 483 and reproduced in the article was actually a maintenance employee who had no contact with product. Second-hand reading of the FDA document with inappropriate interpretation evidently resulted in inadvertent bias introduced into the article.

 

In the event the Company voluntarily issued a recall covering 250 million eggs, the equivalent of six-months production, of which all but about one sixth had been consumed. The Company immediately diverted eggs to breaking and pasteurization while removing two million hens.  The expense of decontamination and upgrades together with depopulation and loss of revenue possibly exceeded $30 million.

 

The technical knowledge of the co-author is exemplified by her explanation of condensation on a shell surface. Ms. Zona-Mendola states “When a cold egg is left out at room temperature the water inside the egg will cause the egg to sweat -or rather transfer to the outside of the egg” Apparently she is unaware of the relationship of ambient temperature, relative humidity and dew point temperature resulting in condensation.

 

Lange and Zona-Mendola are abysmally ignorant of the distinctly different mechanisms responsible for vertical transmission of Group-D and horizontal contamination with Group B and C Salmonella serotypes. To simply infer that all egg-borne salmonellosis is attributed to lack of hygiene, the presence of flies or rodents in barns is invalid.

 

Despite the generalized and overly florid accusations in the article concerning deficient hygiene and a “poor safety culture,” the U.S. egg production industry can be proud of its record of safety. The problem of Salmonella infection has been successfully addressed as denoted by CDC data. Eggs from commercial farms have a negligible risk of causing a food-borne infection. The same cannot be said for beef, green produce and fruit.