WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators unveiled a trio of safety requirements designed to prevent human illness caused by contaminated eggs, the latest salvo in the government's ongoing campaign to combat foodborne illness.
One element that some considered controversial would require cartons of fresh eggs to display safe-handling instructions advising consumers that "eggs may contain harmful bacteria known to cause serious illness." Another aspect would mandate a maximum 45-degrees Fahrenheit temperature threshold for eggs. The final component urges the President's Council on Food Safety to develop further strategic safety plans by the end of this year.
Retailers contacted by SN generally support the idea, noting the close parallel between the labels proposed for cartons and those already appearing on packages of ground beef.
"The more information you can get to the customer, the better," said Chris Condit, senior vice president of meat and dairy for Trader Joe's, South Pasadena, Calif.
The initiative -- a joint effort by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration -- was unveiled after the release of an audit critical of current regulations for eggs and egg products.
"Over the last decade, eggs contaminated with salmonella enteritidis bacteria have increasingly been implicated as the cause of foodborne illness in the United States," testified Lawrence J. Dyckman, director of the Government Accounting Office branch that investigates food and agriculture issues, before the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management.
According to a report compiled by the GAO, salmonella-contaminated eggs caused about 300,000 illnesses in 1997. The egg industry took issue with the number, citing research that indicates the average consumer will encounter a contaminated egg once every 84 years.
Al Pope, president of the United Egg Producers, based here, said that any label should keep the low risk in perspective and that the current proposed language is "too alarmist."
According to the USDA, the proposed informational warning would read, "Eggs may contain harmful bacteria known to cause serious illness, especially in children, the elderly and persons with weakened immune systems. For your protection: Keep eggs refrigerated; cook eggs until yolks are firm; and cook foods containing eggs thoroughly."
While acknowledging that things like this might frighten consumers, Jack Seeno, store manager for Gourmet Garage in New York, said, "[labels] are not going to prevent someone like me from having raw eggs in a Caesar salad or something like that."
The GAO report blamed weak federal and state regulations and the lack of coordination among agencies for the incidences of illness and recommended the creation of a national Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point-based inspection system for egg farms and processing plants.
The GAO's egg inquiry concluded that federal oversight of egg inspection should be consolidated under the USDA or FDA, rather than both. The current dual-agency approach dilutes enforcement, it stated.
For example, there is little policing of the national requirement to refrigerate eggs at 45 degrees Fahrenheit or below from the time they are packed until they reach the consumer, the GAO said.
To that end, the joint USDA/FDA initiative would create, for the first time, a uniform federal requirement to keep eggs at a temperature of 45 degrees Fahrenheit or below throughout the distribution channel, including warehouses and transport vehicles.
The egg industry responded by highlighting programs currently in place. It noted that temperature maintenance is one of the five elements in the United Egg Producers' voluntary Five Star plan, implemented in 1995.