WASHINGTON — Public health officials closed the books this month on an outbreak of salmonella that had sickened more than 1,900 people since May and led to the largest recall of eggs in U.S. history.
Two Iowa egg farms drew most of the blame, triggering a congressional investigation, a federal criminal inquiry and several lawsuits filed by victims.
What has not drawn much scrutiny is the role of the federal government, which recognized 20 years ago that salmonella in eggs posed a public health threat. Although federal inspectors have closely monitored meat and poultry production for the better part of a century, they have largely ignored eggs, another staple of the American diet. It was not until July, well after the recent outbreak was under way, that the government's first rules on safe egg production took effect.
Unlike other regulatory efforts, this one did not sputter under lobbying pressure by business. The $4.4 billion egg industry had been seeking mandatory rules for years, despite the red tape and extra costs. Consumer groups wanted the regulation, and public health experts supported it, along with economists who said the benefits would far outweigh the costs.
But the proposal was thwarted by government itself — philosophical resistance to regulating business as well as rivalries and dysfunction at two federal agencies that share responsibility for keeping egg production safe.
Fractured oversight remains a problem today. There are more than 15 federal agencies and 71 interagency agreements dealing with food safety. Experts in public health and government accountability say that fragmentation weakens oversight, wastes tax dollars through redundancy and creates dangerous gaps.
Balkanization was a key factor in the government's failure to regulate eggs over the past two decades. The push for federal rules on egg production stalled in the George Bush and Clinton administrations as the Food and Drug Administration and the U.S. Department of Agriculture dug into their own silos. It collapsed when the George W. Bush administration brought a renewed skepticism about regulation to the executive branch.
"The system certainly was at its worst," said Lester Crawford, a former FDA commissioner whose own bout with salmonella in 1986 turned the issue into a personal battle.
The regulations that took effect this year require farmers to buy chickens that are certified free of salmonella, test those chickens while they are laying eggs, and, if there is a positive test, stop selling whole eggs.
But the rules were too late to prevent the outbreak this summer.
When FDA inspectors paid their first visit to Wright County Egg after the outbreak, they found henhouses bulging with manure, mice and other hazards that can spread disease.
The company has defended its practices and said in a statement at the time that "the vast majority of the concerns identified in the FDA report already have been addressed through repairs or other corrective measures."
The threat of salmonella-tainted eggs did not exist a generation ago. But in the early 1980s, public health officials noticed an uptick in food poisoning cases linked to a particular strain of salmonella bacteria, which they traced to eggs.
By 1988, scientists had discovered that although other Salmonella strains could be washed off egg shells, one type — Salmonella enteritidis — lived inside eggs. Egg farmers, faced with bad publicity and multimillion-dollar liability claims, voluntarily began testing for the bacteria, disinfecting henhouses, refrigerating eggs, removing manure and controlling rodents. But those farmers soon came to think that they were at an economic disadvantage against competitors who weren't spending money on prevention.