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Eggs are a familiar, versatile, nutritious, economical, and quick-and-easy-to-prepare food. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), they’re responsible for an estimated 230,000 cases of foodborne illness each year.
According to the American Egg Board, Americans consumed 255 eggs per capita in 1999, and that number is expected to rise to 258 in 2000. Approximately 70% of those eggs were purchased by consumers as shell eggs, and 30% in food products, such as baked goods, pasta, and salad dressings. Americans love their eggs, but many of the ways they love them—sunny-side-up, poached, and soft-boiled—may not heat the egg to a high enough temperature to kill the Salmonella enteritidis bacteria that lurks in an estimated 1 out of every 20,000 eggs produced in this country. Also popular are foods that contain eggs as an ingredient and are subsequently undercooked, such as bread pudding, banana pudding, hollandaise and béarnaise sauces, homemade Caesar salad dressing, homemade mayonnaise, French toast, stuffing, crab cakes, cheesecake, and homemade ice cream. It’s no wonder these foods are commonly implicated in Salmonella illness outbreaks.
Last year, the President’s Council on Food Safety identified egg safety as a public health issue that warrants immediate action by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), which share federal regulatory responsibility for egg safety. In response, the agencies developed and announced in December 1999 an action plan entitled “Egg Safety From Production to Consumption: An Action Plan to Eliminate Salmonella enteritidis Illnesses Due to Eggs.” The goal of the action plan is to reduce and ultimately eliminate eggs as a source of human S. enteritidis illnesses. An interim goal is to achieve a 50% reduction in egg-associated S. enteritidis illnesses by 2005.
FDA will develop standards for egg producers and the retail industry (restaurants, hospitals, nursing homes); state agencies will provide inspection and enforcement of the standards on the farm and at retail establishments; FSIS will develop standards for both shell egg packers and egg products processors and will provide inspection and enforcement for both; CDC will conduct surveillance and monitoring activities focusing on human health; and FDA will conduct surveillance and monitoring of the food supply.
Under the action plan, egg producers and processors will implement one of two strategies to improve egg safety. Strategy I requires rigorous on-farm agricultural and sanitation practices, testing for S. enteritidis, and diversion of S. enteritidis–positive eggs to pasteurization or cooked product. Strategy II requires implementation of new technologies such as in-shell pasteurization to kill the organism at the packer stage of production. Both strategies should improve the safety of shell eggs and processed egg products.
An Egg Safety National Standards Work Group, composed of representatives from FDA, USDA, and several states, was established in January 2000 to identify the components of the risk-reduction strategies and develop, with public input, proposed national standards for egg producers, shell egg packers, and egg products processors.
The work group held public meetings on March 30 and April 6 to solicit and discuss information for reducing or eliminating the risk of S. enteritidis in shell eggs and egg products. Participants actively expressed opinions and concerns about the Egg Safety Action Plan and emphasized that both strategies I and II must focus on the entire farm-to-table continuum and not solely on the farm and the packer.
Here is a summary of the comments voiced at the public meetings: • Nationwide consistent standards are needed to provide a level playing field and to improve confidence in the egg supply. • Standards must be risk-based and achieve the intended purpose. • Different configurations of layer houses and ranches require flexible implementation. • Education, at all levels, is essential in reducing foodborne illness. • The plan must cover and reach all producers. • It must identify and inform those consumers who are at risk. • Food handler and retail training and certification are essential to ensure that proper food handling practices are applied. • Consumers expect safe food and expect the government to ensure that food is safe. • Testing alone cannot be used to improve egg safety. • Incoming products (chicks, feed, water, and other materials) must meet national standards. • Better understanding of the ecology and introduction of S. enteritidis into layers is needed. • Enforcement and inspection must be consistent. • Inspector training is a prerequisite for a successful program.
The agencies used the information from the public meetings and written comments to draft their “current thinking papers” (available on the Internet at www.foodsafety.gov) on the proposed national standards. A public meeting was held on July 31, and proposed rules are expected to be published in the Federal Register later this year.
by Nancy S. Bufano is Consumer Safety Officer, Food and Drug Administration, 200 C St., S.W., Washington, DC 20204.