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Egg recall puts FOOD safety back in spotlight

State’s catfish farmers still waiting for the USDA inspections

The recent massive recalls of tainted eggs that involved one Mississippi company has the nation’s food-inspection efforts back in the spotlight. And while the egg/poultry industry works its damage control, the catfish farmers are still waiting on a promised change in the way the U.S. inspects fish.

Last summer, the largest egg recall in U.S. history was issued after thousands of people all over the country were stricken with salmonella poisoning. In August, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced its investigators traced the salmonella outbreak back to two egg farms in Iowa — Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms.

It was a blow to Jackson-based Cal-Maine Food Inc, the nation’s largest egg seller and distributor. The company was forced to recall approximately 800,000 eggs it had received from Iowa, and, according to Dolph Baker, Cal-Maine president, immediately notify affected customers.

Initially, the FDA said it did not expect the salmonella contamination to spread beyond those two farms. But a new source soon arose.

A subsequent routine FDA inspection of another supplier, Ohio Fresh Eggs, LLC, of Croton, Ohio, found more salmonella contamination. And again Cal-Maine was forced to issue a recall, this time for approximately 288,000 eggs it had received from Ohio Fresh Eggs.

The Ohio Fresh eggs were processed in Cal-Maine’s facility in Green Forest, Ark., between Oct. 9-12, and were shipped as far as California.

Yet, Cal-Maine was not notified of the salmonella-tainted eggs until the first week of November.

There have been no salmonella-related illnesses attributed to these eggs. Still, the delay raises questions. Who was at fault?

Delores McMillin in the office of Timothy Dawson, CFO of Cal-Maine, said her company issued its press release on the recall as soon as it was notified by the FDA. She would not say Cal-Maine was surprised by the delay in notification from the FDA, but did say Cal-Maine found it “a little too long. We released the press release as quickly as possible. That’s all we could do.”

The U.S. Egg Producers finds no fault with Ohio Fresh Eggs, but says it was an honest mistake. Robin Baber with GolinHarris in Atlanta, serving as spokesperson for UEP, said, “We believe (Ohio Fresh Eggs) acted appropriately, but that a single truck load of eggs was inadvertently shipped…”

UEP also does not fault with the FDA or the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), both of whom are responsible for egg safety. The USDA is responsible for egg safety at the processing facilities. The FDA is responsible for shell eggs and egg products after they leave these facilities.

Baber said there is no push by the egg industry to alter the way the U.S. government inspects its products.

Meanwhile, the catfish industry wants a change. It wants FDA’s inspection authority reduced, and it has waited months for a shift from the FDA to the USDA for fish inspections. And the wait continues.

After years of lobbying by the catfish industry, the 2008 Farm Bill approved the transfer of the inspection of imported fish from the FDA to the USDA. It was a victory for the industry, which contends that the FDA is inspecting only approximately 2 percent of the imported fish arriving in the U.S.

Yet, the victory has thus far proven hollow. When the transfer of inspections did not happen when planned, many, including Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), pointed to the USDA’s catfish-inspection budget, which had been slashed by nearly a third compared to that authorized by Congress for fiscal year 2010.

Now, funding is not the issue, according to Taylor Webb, editor of the Catfish Journal. Rather, the issue is wording.

Webb said officials are haggling over the definition of “catfish.” The U.S. industry was as broad a definition as possible so the numerous species of imported fish such as basa, tra and swai are included.

“We keep hearing it’s going to break free, and there are some signs,” Webb said. However, he said the industry has been hearing that the shift in inspections is imminent for months now and nothing has happened.

The catfish industry is using the egg recalls as ammunition to get USDA inspections. It cited a recent article published in the FTD Trade Alert e-newsletter produced by the commodity market news reporting service Urner Barry.

Author Richard Gutting Jr. wrote: “Like eggs, salmonella is a persistent hazard for farmed seafood… Unlike eggs, most seafood is imported, so regulating American farmers alone won’t fix the problem.”

“Aquaculture is agriculture, plain and simple — our catfish are grown by farmers, not fishermen,” said Roger Barlow, president of The Catfish Institute in Jackson. “Because of this, it simply makes sense that our industry be regulated by the appropriate administration.”


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