Aug 232010
Authors: Jeffry Bartash, McClatchy-Tribune

WASHINGTON — Forget eating your eggs over easy. At least for now.

That’s the advice of the government’s top food-safety regulator after the nationwide recall of more than half a billion eggs tied to an outbreak of salmonella poisoning.

Margaret Hamburg, commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, said Monday the agency continues to investigate the source of the contamination and could issue additional recalls. Consumers should take extra safety precautions, such as washing hands before and after handling eggs and cooking the eggs thoroughly, she said.

“No more runny egg yolks for mopping up with toast,” Hamburg said during an interview on NBC’s “Today” show.

The eggs being recalled were sold in at least 22 states under as many as 24 different brands. The recall is the biggest in “recent memory,” Hamburg said.

The FDA ordered the recall last Thursday after nearly 2,000 episodes of salmonella poisoning were reported between May and July, mostly in the Midwest, according to the Centers for Disease Control. In a typical year, about 700 cases would have been reported during that period.

Salmonella poisoning can be fatal for the very young, the very old or those with poor immune systems. Most cases involve temporary symptoms such as nausea, diarrhea, stomach pain and some vomiting.

Hamburg said the delay in the recall stemmed from the difficulty of tracing the source of contamination. The form of salmonella involved in the outbreak is the most common, making it hard to determine its origin, she said.

Eventually, the FDA investigation led to two Iowa-based producers, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. Wright County Egg is owned by Jack DeCoster, who owns other produce companies that have been cited for repeated violations extending as far back as 1994.

In the U.S., nearly 80 billion whole eggs are produced for sale each year, some of which are exported. Iowa is by far the nation’s leading producer.

Until recently, the FDA lacked authority to inspect chicken farms where eggs are produced, a task that solely belonged to Agriculture Department. The FDA was granted the right to check farms starting on July 9 as part of a law passed in 2009.

Hamburg, however, said the agency needs even more power so the FDA can prevent outbreaks before they happen, especially with so much food now entering the U.S. from overseas.

“We need additional resources. We need additional authority,” she said.

Several bills in Congress would give the FDA exactly that. One bill in the Senate has the official support of 17 members — 12 Democrats and five Republicans.

Meanwhile, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, who chairs a House panel that handles matters related to the egg industry, complained that the dual regulatory oversight by the FDA and Agriculture Department could lead to a confusing inspection process.

The Connecticut Democrat said Congress should ultimately create one agency to handle all matters of food safety — from the producer to the consumer.

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