WASHINGTON — A salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds and led to the recall of hundreds of millions of eggs from one Iowa firm will likely grow, federal health officials said yesterday.
That’s because illnesses occurring after mid-July may not be reported yet, said Dr. Christopher Braden, an epidemiologist with the federal Centers for Disease Control.
Almost 2,000 illnesses from the strain of salmonella linked to the eggs were reported between May and July, about 1,300 more than usual, he said. No deaths have been reported. The CDC is continuing to receive information from state health departments as people report their illnesses.
“I would anticipate that we will be seeing more illnesses reported likely as a result of this outbreak,” said Braden. The recall of 380 million eggs from Iowa’s Wright County Egg is one of the largest shell egg recalls in recent history.
The outbreak could have been prevented if new rules to ensure egg safety had been in place a few months earlier, an FDA spokeswoman said.
The rules, which require producers to do more testing for salmonella and take other precautions, went into effect in July. They had languished for more than a decade after President Bill Clinton first proposed that egg standards be toughened. The FDA said in July that the new safeguards could reduce the number of salmonella cases by nearly 60 percent.
“There are preventive measures that would have been in place that could have prevented this,” said Sherri McGarry of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
She and other officials declined to say what specific measures would have prevented this particular outbreak, citing an ongoing FDA investigation.
Hinda Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the company, said it abided by guidance issued by the United Egg Producers, an industry group. Those procedures mirror several aspects of the federal egg safety rule.
FDA’s McGarry said illnesses were traced back to eggs produced on three of five farms the Iowa company owns. The investigation, which includes sampling, records review and sanitation assessments, is focusing on those three farms.
Salmonella is the most common form of food poisoning from bacteria, and the strain involved in the outbreak is the most common kind of salmonella — accounting for roughly 20 percent of all such food poisonings.
Minnesota, a state with some of the best food-borne illness investigators in the country, has tied at least seven salmonella illnesses to the eggs. California has reported 266 illnesses since June and believes many are related to the eggs. Colorado saw 28 cases in June and July, about four times the usual number.
Other states have seen a jump in reports of the same type of salmonella. Spikes or clusters of suspicious cases have also been reported in Arizona, Illinois, Nevada, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin.
The CDC said investigations by 10 states since April have identified 26 cases where more than one person became ill. Preliminary information showed that Wright was the supplier in at least 15 of those.
Much of the investigation so far has been centered on restaurants in California, Colorado, Minnesota and North Carolina.
The eggs were distributed around the country and packaged under the names Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph’s, Boomsma’s, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms and Kemp.
The businessman who owns Wright County Egg, Jack DeCoster, has been cited for numerous health, safety and employment violations in the past. In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay $2 million in fines to settle citations brought in 1996 for health and safety violations at DeCoster’s farm in Turner, Maine.
Wright County Egg is already facing at least two lawsuits related to the recall. One is from food distributor Dutch Farms, which says the company used unauthorized cartons to package and sell eggs under its brand name without its knowledge. The other is from a person who said they became ill after eating tainted eggs in a salad at a restaurant in Kenosha, Wis.
The outbreak also raised new questions about federal inspections of egg farms.
McGarry cited jurisdictional issues when she told reporters yesterday that the agency “does not have an inspectional history with this firm.” When asked who does have jurisdiction, McGarry pointed to the Agriculture Department. Yet USDA oversees voluntary grading inspections, but does not test for salmonella in shell eggs.
The FDA acknowledged in a statement late Thursday that it has done some inspections on egg farms already linked to recalls, but did not say anything additional about whether the agency had inspected Wright County Egg.
Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the egg recall shows that stronger authority is needed on the farm.
“Jurisdiction over eggs has been scrambled between numerous government agencies for the last 20 years, resulting in enormous delays in addressing the hazard posed by salmonella,” she said.
Legislation that would increase the frequency of FDA inspections has stalled in the Senate after the House passed it a year ago.
The most common symptoms of salmonella are diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever within eight hours to 72 hours of eating a contaminated product. It can be life-threatening, especially to those with weakened immune systems.
The form of salmonella tied to the outbreak can be passed from chickens that appear healthy. And it grows inside eggs, not just on the shell, Braden noted.
Thoroughly cooking eggs can kill the bacteria. But health officials are recommending people throw away or return the recalled eggs.