Centrum Valley Farms was started in April 2011 as a partnership between the Dean and Boomsma families to take over the assets of Wright County Egg Farms in Iowa. Wright County, which was owned by the DeCoster family, was involved in the largest egg recall in U.S. history because of eggs that were contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis. After the 2010 egg recall, all operations were halted on the farms.
Steve Boomsma, chief operating officer, Centrum Valley Farms, recently explained to the audience at the Egg Industry Center’s Issues Forum in Des Moines, Iowa, the long process his company undertook to reopen the farms and win back the trust of customers and regulators.
“We were not naïve. We knew that we were going to have a target on our backs and that we were going to be put under the microscope,” he said. “We went into this knowing that there were some agreements in place between the Wright County Egg Farms, which had been part of the Quality Egg Group, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) related to Salmonella enteritidis and we also knew that there were some agreements related to Salmonella Heidelberg.”
“We knew that we were not on a level playing field" with respect to the rest of the layer industry, Boomsma explained. “We started by trying to take a proactive approach.” He said they brought in experts in all areas of egg production and looked at everything from chicks to pullets to housing to the hatchery and the feed. The goal was to work with the FDA to come up with a program that would keep Salmonella out and make everyone, from customers to regulators, happy.
Salmonella in poultry can come from the breeder flock through the egg or it can come from the hatchery, so any effective Salmonella prevention program has to start with clean chicks. These chicks have to go into clean houses.
Centrum Valley Farms has 24 pullet houses and 83 layer houses. Boomsma said they developed a 13-step process for cleaning the barns, which took 18 days to complete. Each house was cleaned and assessed separately. Cleaning a house meant cleaning everything. He said that every light bulb was removed, and all the beams were brushed. After cleaning, everything was “whitewashed” with a mixture of calcium hydroxide, salt and water. He said that this “sterilized” everything. The “whitewash” was applied inside the barn and on five-foot-wide strips around the outside of the barn.
Salmonella prevention, testing
After completion of the house cleaning, each building was tested for Salmonella enteritidis and Salmonella Heidelberg. The Salmonella Heidelberg test takes a full week to get results.
Boomsma said that one barn had to be cleaned three times before it produced negative environmental samples. They had to clean another barn 3 times. He said some small insects were present in a beam in the barn and these bugs were tracking the Salmonella back into the house after cleaning.
This was a long, involved process. He said some houses were empty for 2.5 years.
Each building had to be approved as clean by the FDA prior to placing birds in it. The Salmonella-free chicks were placed in approved pullet houses. The pullets then had to test again as being free from Salmonella enteritidis and Salmonella Heidelberg before being moved to the layer house. The layer house had been cleaned, sampled and proven to be Salmonella enteritidis and Salmonella Heidelberg free before the pullets were placed in the house. Post-fill environmental samples were then taken in the layer house and egg tests commenced when the birds started laying.
This process was done on a house-by-house basis for 24 pullet and 83 layer barns.
The vaccination program at Centrum Valley Farms called for each bird to be vaccinated eight times during its life from startup of operations in 2011 through 2013 -- five live and three killed vaccines. Boomsma said that, from 2014 on, this program was reduced to three live and two killed vaccines.
More egg testing
Testing of eggs for Salmonella enteritidis commenced as soon as the birds went into lay, and continued monthly. Environmental swabs were also taken monthly. If a barn tested negative for environmental and egg samples for six months, then FDA allowed them to start grading eggs from that house. Prior to this approval, the eggs went to the breaker.
Boomsma said they have sampled 300,000 eggs. He said the FDA will find that the Salmonella enteritidis rate in the industry right now is very low; he suspects it is around 100 times less than 1 in 10,000.
The program at Centrum is working. Once the buildings were cleaned up and approved for birds, they have stayed clean. Out of thousands of samples taken at Centrum, Boomsma said they have only found Salmonella enteritidis in two environmental samples outside a house in four years.
Boomsma said that, in April 2012, around one year after the farms were taken over by Centrum, they were investigated by FDA.
“We were very up front and shared all of our data,” he said. Centrum was treating a finding of Salmonella Heidelberg just as it would a finding of Salmonella enteritidis.
When FDA inspectors returned again after another 14 months, he said they once again shared all of the data they had gathered.
“We let them know what we had found everywhere,” he said. FDA used Centrum’s past findings to guide their inspection in June 2013, Boomsma said. He said they came in sampling for all five types of Salmonella that Centrum had reported finding, not just looking for Salmonella enteritidis and Salmonella Heidelberg. Over a one-month period, he said FDA brought in 40 inspectors to go through every pullet and layer house they had. The FDA couldn’t find the Salmonella in places where Centrum had said they had found Salmonella.
A year after these inspections, FDA sent a letter which released Centrum from the original agreement that Quality Egg had signed. Boomsma said that the letter stated, “Your efforts to prevent another outbreak have been excessive.” He went on to quote the letter, saying, “As of May 20, 2014, the enhanced testing agreement is complete, you will return to routine monitoring.”
Advice on Salmonella prevention
Boomsma said, “The best thing we ever did was to communicate. We communicated within our company, with our customers and with the federal government.”
He told egg producers, “You have to be proactive. If you find it, then you have to deal with it. We were told, ‘You know you have Salmonella Heidelberg, you better treat it.’ You need to start (bio-) mapping where you find the strains of Salmonella.”
Eliminating Salmonella enteritidis is only the beginning. He said, “We see trends going to different types of Salmonella.”
When asked about the decision to buy the farms and take on the job of bringing them back into operation, he said, “We are happy we bought it. I wanted to be able to sleep at night and know my eggs were safe. I didn’t lose sleep. I believed in the people we were working with. It cost us dearly. But our eggs are safe.”