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Luck may have kept salmonella out of Florida eggs

By Bob LaMendola

The Sun-Sentinel

Florida eggs have not caused a reported case of salmonella since 1993, but the state's egg industry is bracing for more federal scrutiny as a result of this summer's outbreak.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration will inspect all large egg farms in the nation by year's end, including 14 giants that ship 2.6 billion eggs yearly in Florida, the tenth leading egg-producing state.

Food-safety advocates hailed the move this week, saying Florida's track record may be the result of luck as much as industry practices or state rules considered among the nation's toughest. The state does not inspect egg farms, and federal officials are spread thin making quarterly egg inspections.

The state does not require farms to take the single best step to prevent salmonella – vaccinating chickens – and neither do new federal rules that took effect in July.

"The [state] government is doing some things but not as much as they could be doing," said Roy Costa, a Deland health sanitation consultant for food businesses. "What the government does in Florida is not really regulation, it's more guidance."

State and federal regulators virtually let egg producers police themselves, said David Babcock, an attorney at Seattle law firm Marler Clark, which specializes in food contamination.

"There will never be enough money for the government to adequately inspect our food supply," Babcock said. "If food contamination ever gets solved, ultimately the food suppliers will have to decide it's good business to make safe food."

Florida was not touched by the August recall of 550 million eggs for potential contamination with salmonella bacteria that sickened about 2,000 people. All of the eggs came from two Iowa farms, and none were sent to Florida.

Officials believe the bacteria came from chickens eating feed with contaminated animal bone meal and from eggs exposed to filth and vermin. Salmonella can contaminate eggs through the hen or the shell.

Health officials estimate that salmonella infects one in 20,000 eggs, a ratio that sounds small but works out to 4 million eggs a year of 75 billion laid by America's hens.

Florida's 14 egg farms – from Indiantown and Okeechobee through Central Florida – in recent years have boosted systems to stay clean and to keep salmonella from henhouses, said Paul Raynes, egg program manager for the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

All are owned by the nation's No. 1 egg producer, Cal-Maine Foods. The company bought the farms since 2005 and improved plant cleaning, egg washing and cold storage, Raynes said.

"They spent a lot of money fixing up the facilities and making them first-class facilities, doing repairs and correcting problems," Raynes said.

Publix buys all of its eggs sold in Florida from Cal- Maine, while Whole Foods buys its store brand eggs from South Carolina, chain officials said. Winn-Dixie did not respond to questions about its eggs.

Cal-Maine recalled 9.9 million eggs that it bought from the affected Iowa farms, but none came to Florida. Cal-Maine officials declined to comment for this story.

Florida's rules governing egg farms and packing plants are considered among the nation's toughest, national safety advocates said. But unlike California and a few other states, Florida does not make regular inspections – visiting only to grade eggs – and relies on companies to comply with the rules.

Raynes, a former FDA official, called the approach a partnership: "Florida has one of the best programs I've ever seen." The last known salmonella outbreak from Florida eggs happened in 1993, when 12 people got sick after eating homemade ice cream at a Jacksonville psychiatric hospital picnic.

But food safety advocates said Cal-Maine does not routinely vaccinate hens against salmonella and only a few states require it. Officials say vaccination is expensive and not proven effective.

Advocates counter that several studies show inoculating prevents the bacteria and would cost 4 cents to 14 cents per hen. Salmonella illnesses in Great Britain plunged from 15,000 a year in 1997 to 580 last year, a decline attributed to mandatory inoculation.

Cal-Maine inoculates some Florida hens because it's profitable, advocates said. The company sells to the nation's No. 1 brand, premium-priced Eggland's Best, which only buys eggs from vaccinated hens.

Cal-Maine also feeds some hens all-vegetable diets without bone meal, and some get all- vegan organic feed for eggs sold under its specialty brand, 4-Grain.

Food-safety attorney Babcock questioned why companies couldn't expand those practices to better protect all eggs.

"The things that egg producers could do to greatly reduce salmonella in eggs, they're not that hard," Babcock said.

Advocates hope that the new federal rules will help. Egg farms and plants must: Buy hens from farms inspected for salmonella; do more to keep rodents and bugs out of henhouses; do more to prevent contamination when workers move among houses; allow fewer visitors and make them take steps such as wearing protective suits and booties; and refrigerate eggs to 45 degrees within 36 hours of laying.

Farms must also test eggs, chicks and hens, and if salmonella is found, disinfect and begin egg treatment and testing until eggs test negative four times in a row.

The nation's food industry also touts a voluntary program of standards and annual inspections by its Safe Quality Foods Institute. The guidelines are tougher than the government's, said Jill Hollingsworth, vice president of food safety.

All of Cal-Maine's 35 egg processing plants in 16 states scored the program's highest ratings. But only 139 nationally out of about 600 large plants comply, and only one egg farm in the nation participates.

"The next step is for the processors and retailers to demand that the farms get certified," Hollingsworth said. "That's how to tackle salmonella."

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