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…
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…
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…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.
Looking in from the outside, I suppose we could get mired down over who gets the most blame: the fools leading both parties in ideological stasis; bureaucrats arguing over responsibility, turf and budget; or both segments of the political bedrooms striving to bend over further for a corporate screwing.
Finally, we have an administration willing to commit to change. It will likely take a couple of terms to get all of this shorn of clutter and copout. At least, we now have a chance at trying for sensible regulation and protection.