There’s no doubt that food scares make great media fodder, and the 2010 egg recall in the US was no exception. Over 32 million dozen eggs recalled, 17 states affected and hundreds of reported cases of illness. The figures alone make for great breakfast time reading.
Initially the recall caused egg prices to increase as demand outstripped supply, but then as the public became more aware of the issue consumption and prices inevitably slumped. However, the impact on egg consumption is unlikely to be long-lived, according to Dr John Brown, Senior Veterinarian at Pfizer Poultry Health, “The public tends to have a relatively short memory for things like this. The media really latches on to it and you hear nothing else for weeks. Once the media decides it is no longer newsworthy then it’s a case of out of sight is out of mind. Consumption and prices recover relatively quickly.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he adds, “There was definitely a spike in incidence of gastro-intestinal disease in people associated with eggs originating from the farms identified. This is not an issue that the industry or consumers should ignore. But I don’t think there has been significant permanent damage to consumption.”
Ironically, the recall came at time when the US industry was in the process of actively addressing the very issues which led to it; new FDA egg safety rules, which were already being applied in many states, became mandatory just a few months after the recall.
“To a large degree the industry was in the process of responding to the new FDA egg safety rules anyway – in many states the process was well advanced. For example, Pennsylvania, New York, California and several others have had egg quality assurance programs with environmental testing, improved biosecurity and vaccination in place since the 90s. “The new rules are a step in the right direction – food safety is paramount and consumers need to be protected.”
Although the attention of the media was understandably on the industry and its practices, Dr Brown believes that there are lessons to be learned by consumers as well. “To me, this is a multi-faceted issue: not only does the industry need to work hard but the consumer has to play a part too. For example, people should realise that they have to handle eggs properly, keeping them refrigerated until they use them. Past experiences have shown that most illnesses where eggs have been implicated have involved mishandling of the egg or egg-containing product, such as storing shell eggs without refrigeration for long periods of time, holding egg-containing product at room temperature before serving, etc.
“Institutions that use a lot of eggs have a particular responsibility to handle eggs correctly and safely to safeguard consumers, especially the elderly and immune compromised. So it isn’t just the producers who need to be more aware of the risks – everybody has to share the responsibility to some extent."
Consumers should certainly be more aware now of the scope and size of the US egg industry with a national supply network that means that one day’s production can end up on grocery store shelves in many states the next day.
Although the recall may have temporarily knocked consumer confidence, Dr Brown believes that it has also highlighted some of the positive aspects of the industry.
“I think the industry responded very well. The particular producer involved voluntarily recalled eggs immediately and initiated procedures to rectify problems on the farms. The fact that eggs could be quickly traced to hundreds of outlets across many states, and efficiently removed from the market, shows that the traceability systems that have been in place for years for just this kind of incident do actually work when needed.
“The issue has also reminded us of the importance of good biosecurity on production units and especially the need for good rodent control.”
Dr Brown has over 25 years’ experience in the poultry industry and believes that this is one area where he and his colleagues can add value to his customers.
“Every time we visit a producer the FDA SE Egg Safety Rule is discussed in one way or another. We often help producers look at their biosecurity setup, and evaluate their rodent control. Not that we are experts in pest control, but sometimes just another pair of eyes can help to spot things that the producer has missed.
“We visit a lot of producers and have the opportunity to learn from their experiences as to what has worked for them and can therefore pass positive experiences from one producer to others. That way we can really add value to an individual producer and act as a kind of communication channel in the industry.”
One area where Pfizer Poultry Health has a wealth of experience is in vaccination. According to Dr Brown usage of the company’s Salmonella vaccines had been steadily rising even before the recall in 2010 because producers have found them to be very effective in reducing risk. After the recall incident, there was a dramatic rise in demand and in his experience the majority of producers now use vaccination as an important part of their Salmonella control policy.
“The take-up has been good and these poultry producers see Salmonella vaccination as a routine part of their operating procedure and an integral part of the cost of producing safe, good quality eggs.”
Through his work, Dr Brown has experience of Salmonella control in Europe, where some countries virtually eliminated Salmonella from their flocks in the 1970s by implementing a ruthless culling of all infected flocks and subsequent biosecurity measures and monitoring. So is that another option for the US?
“I don’t see that as a feasible option because of the scope and size of the US industry. Our layer/breeder industry has already done a phenomenal job over the years in producing chicks that are Salmonella enteritidis negative.
“The FDA rules are taking that further and extending into the commercial egg flock end of the business. I think it will be effective in reaching the same goal, it just may take a bit longer. The recent recall we have experienced is rare – but I think it will be even rarer in the future.”
The fact that birds are periodic shedders of Salmonella, ie they may shed bacteria for 4 or 5 weeks and then not shed any for a period of time until they are stressed again, is a challenge. The FDA rules are designed to take this into consideration and tests are timed specifically to find Salmonella if it is present.
Only time will tell what impact the new rules will have on an industry which is already moving in the right direction, but one thing is certain: if they help to avoid another egg recall, then that can only be good for everyone. As Dr Brown says, “Customers will always be the most important focus of the poultry industry: their safety and satisfaction is essential for its continuing success.”