Faced with a crisis more than a decade ago in which thousands of people were sickened from salmonella in infected eggs, farmers in Britain began vaccinating their hens against the bacteria. That simple but decisive step virtually wiped out the health threat.
But when American regulators created new egg safety rules that went into effect last month, they declared that there was not enough evidence to conclude that vaccinating hens against salmonella would prevent people from getting sick. The Food and Drug Administration decided not to mandate vaccination of hens — a precaution that would cost less than a penny per a dozen eggs.
Now, consumers have been shaken by one of the largest egg recalls ever, involving nearly 550 million eggs from two Iowa producers, after a nationwide outbreak of thousands of cases of salmonella was traced to eggs contaminated with the bacteria.
The F.D.A. has said that if its egg safety rules had gone into effect earlier, the crisis might have been averted. Those rules include regular testing for contamination, cleanliness standards for henhouses and refrigeration requirements, all of which experts say are necessary.
However, many industry experts say the absence of mandatory vaccination greatly weakens the F.D.A. rules, depriving them of a crucial step that could prevent future outbreaks.
Salmonella bacteria is passed from infected hens to the interior of eggs when they are being formed. The salmonella vaccines work both by reducing the number of hens that get infected and by making it more difficult for salmonella bacteria to pass through to the eggs…
The F.D.A. said it considered mandatory vaccination very seriously. “We didn’t believe that, based on the data we had, there was sufficient scientific evidence for us to require it,” said Dr. Nega Beru, director of the agency’s Office of Food Safety…
Unfortunately, no one decided to look beyond the prelimary studies from 1999. That seems to be as much a political decision as anything else.
The F.D.A. began working on its new egg rules more than a decade ago, and a review of agency documents suggests that officials formed a negative opinion about the effectiveness of vaccines early on. That opinion failed to change as time passed and evidence mounted that vaccines significantly reduced the occurrence of salmonella…
One such trial cited by F.D.A. officials was a 1999 Pennsylvania study that found little difference in salmonella levels between some vaccinated flocks and an unvaccinated control group. “Currently there is no vaccine that has been shown to be efficacious in the field,” the agency wrote in a public summary of its views last year.
However, Dr. Sherrill Davison, the lead researcher on that 1999 study, said that the F.D.A.’s assessment did not reflect advances made since then.
“That data was very preliminary data that used vaccine technology from the beginning of these programs, and that technology has changed and our understanding of how to administer them has changed,” she said.
In other words, all the time the FDA was under the thumb of faith-based pundits, science outside the FDA moved on. Protection for American consumers remained the lowest priority.
Health successes in agriculture abroad was considered too extreme for our resident naysayers. Nothing was done that might cost agribusiness an extra penny.