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Administration Issues New Rules on Egg Safety

By Gardiner Harris

Article from The New York Times

WASHINGTON — Researchers discovered during the Reagan administration that contaminated fresh eggs sickened thousands of people, but federal officials squabbled for two decades about how to solve the problem.

On Tuesday, the Obama administration released a rule to deal with the nation’s egg problem and used the moment to promise a sweeping overhaul of the system to ensure the safety of spinach, lettuce, tomatoes, melons, beef and chicken — foods that lead to millions of illnesses and thousands of deaths a year.

In a White House ceremony, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. told an audience of two cabinet secretaries, Congressional leaders and food regulators that the administration would make safer foods a priority.

“There are few responsibilities more basic or more important for the government,” he said, “than making sure the food our families in America eat is not contaminated and is safe.”

Most of the measures announced Tuesday are more aspirational than actual. The Agriculture Department promised to develop new standards to reduce salmonella levels in chickens and turkeys by the end of the year. The Food and Drug Administration promised to advise the food industry by the end of the month on how to prevent contamination of tomatoes, melons, spinach and lettuce. And within three months the F.D.A. plans to release advice about how farmers, wholesalers and retailers can build systems to trace contaminated foods quickly from shelf to field.

But many rules that even industry representatives call essential are years away. “We’ve got to move to mandatory regulatory standards, and this is a step along the way,” said Michael Taylor, a food specialist who is a senior adviser at the food and drug agency.

Consumer advocates and industry representatives said they welcomed the administration’s commitment to food safety.

“We are re-laying the foundation for our food safety system,” said Scott Faber, vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. The House Energy and Commerce Committee approved a bipartisan measure last month that would give the food and drug agency more money and authority to inspect food facilities and to force contaminated ingredients off the market. Food manufacturers would have to write and carry out safety plans, paying an annual registration fee to help finance inspections.

The full House could take up the measure as soon as this week, said Representative John D. Dingell, a Michigan Democrat who has pushed for a safety overhaul for decades.

Previous presidents have promised to make food safer only to find their efforts swamped by other priorities, bureaucratic turf battles and lethargy. The odyssey of the egg rule demonstrates the challenges.

In 1988, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention discovered that thousands of people were being sickened after eating raw eggs that appeared clean and undamaged. Researchers discovered that chickens that are chronically infected with salmonella laid eggs laced with the bacteria, which can sicken and kill humans.

Officials at the Agriculture Department and the F.D.A. bickered for years over who should oversee regulatory efforts.

Agriculture officials set up a pilot program in Pennsylvania in 1992 to test regulatory efforts and found that one source of contamination was mouse and rat feces in chicken feed. Another problem was infected breeder hens. Pest controls, certified breeders, regular manure testing and other measures helped reduce the share of infected henhouses in the state to 7 percent from 39 percent, said Paul H. Patterson, a professor of poultry science at Pennsylvania State University.

More than a dozen other states copied Pennsylvania’s program while federal regulators bickered. In 1999, President Bill Clinton announced that the F.D.A. would issue an egg rule. Nothing happened. In 2004, the agency issued a proposed egg rule. Nothing happened. The egg rule released Tuesday largely copied Pennsylvania’s voluntary program but made it mandatory.

Howard Magwire, vice president of the United Egg Producers, said his industry supported the new rule. About 250 major egg producers in the United States account for 99 percent of fresh egg production, Mr. Magwire said, and most already abide by the rule. Since the rule applies only to producers with 3,000 or more laying hens, thousands of small producers are exempt.

Federal researchers estimated that more than 130,000 people are sickened every year and 30 die as a result of contaminated eggs, and the government estimated that the new rule would cut illnesses by 60 percent and save $1.4 billion in health costs.

The odyssey of the egg rule shows just how dysfunctional the government’s oversight of food safety has become, said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group. “Even when everyone agrees on the policy direction, it takes forever,” she said.


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