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If anyone ever wanted to get their point across in a big way, the Food and Drug Administration certainly has impeccable timing. Just last month the agency implemented new rules designed to reduce the outbreak of salmonella enteriditis from eggs processed by large egg producers — precisely the classification assigned to Wright County Egg, the Galt, Iowa-based producer believed to be the source of the current 400-million egg recall.

white_eggs.jpgThe regulations, under consideration for some seven years, apply to large-scale operations with more than 50,000 hens. These factory farms provide about 80% of the nation’s shell eggs, according to the FDA. Companies with fewer than 50,000 hens, but more than 3,000, have until next year to comply.

The rules add a series of preventative measures for eggs that do not undergo any treatment such as pasteurization. Companies must:

• Buy chicks and young hens only from suppliers who monitor for Salmonella bacteria;

• Establish rodent, pest control, and biosecurity measures to prevent spread of bacteria throughout the farm by people and equipment;

• Conduct testing in the poultry house for salmonella enteritidis (SE). If the tests find the bacterium, a representative sample of the eggs must be tested over an eight-week time period (four tests at two-week intervals); if any of the four egg tests is positive, the producer must further process the eggs to destroy the bacteria, or divert the eggs to a non-food use;

• Clean and disinfect poultry houses that have tested positive for SE;

• Refrigerate eggs at 45 degrees Fahrenheit during storage and transportation no later than 36 hours after the eggs are laid (this requirement also applies to egg producers whose eggs receive a treatment, such as pasteurization).

The FDA estimates that SE causes nearly 80,000 illnesses and more than two dozen deaths every year. These kinds of numbers make it easy to understand why federal regulators were so keen to install updated safety protocols.

Interestingly, the small producers with fewer than 3,000 hens are exempt. It’s important to note that these folks are not exempt from having SE contaminate their eggs, but it’s implicit in the FDA regulation that these mom-and-pop processors (who comprise less than 1% of the industry) operate farms in a different fashion than their larger competitors. Don’t be surprised if free-range and other specialty eggs get a sales boost from worried consumers now wary of factory farms. We also received emails pitching “functional, renewable plant proteins” that mimic the mouthfeel and consistency of fresh shell eggs.

There’s been little news about what conditions at the Wright County facility are like. Our searches haven’t turned up the kind of revelations that highlighted last year’s peanut recall. Wright County could be a decent, clean company.

But nevertheless this is the truth: Outbreaks of foodborne illness are sometimes the best publicity for producers that promote humane, free-farm techniques and target small-scale/local market penetration.

[Photo credit: cursedthing]

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