Scale Of Salmonella Outbreak Unknown

Federal officials say they don't yet know the size of a national epidemic of salmonella from contaminated eggs. Between May and July, health officials counted nearly 2,000 salmonella cases — compared to a normal caseload of 700. Officials say they expect the number to grow when illnesses from late July and early August are logged.

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Federal officials say the number of Americans made sick by contaminated eggs will continue to rise over the next few weeks as more cases are logged. So far, about 1,300 cases of egg-related Salmonella have been counted from North Carolina to California, and officials have identified two large Iowa egg producers as the source.

NPR's Richard Knox reports now on new federal egg-safety regulations that many experts hope will prevent future Salmonella outbreaks.

RICHARD KNOX: A bug called Salmonella enteriditis first became a big problem in eggs two decades ago. Nobody's quite sure why. But in recent years, outbreaks have been fewer and farther between. That may be because of a voluntary program by egg producers to clean up their act.

Bill Marler is a Seattle attorney who specializes in food safety.

Mr. BILL MARLER (Attorney): The egg industry has done a very good job over the last several years, in most part, paying attention and voluntary compliance with what is now the Egg Rule.

KNOX: The Egg Rule is a new Food and Drug Administration set of regulations on egg safety that went into effect last month. Basically, the rule nationalizes the industry's voluntary program, which was spotty. Some egg producers followed it, many didn't. Iowa producers did, says Howard Magwire of United Egg Producers, an industry group.

Mr. HOWARD MAGWIRE (Vice President of Government Relations, United Egg Producers): The producers out there previously implemented much of what's in the egg safety plan.

KNOX: So that raises a question: Will the new regulation be enough to prevent future outbreaks?

MAGWIRE: Your question is excellent, and I can't answer it because I don't know what happened. I wish I did. It's perplexing.

KNOX: For the answer, you might look to Denmark. It may have the world's safest eggs.

Mr. HENRIK WEGENER (Director, Danish National Food Institute): Shell eggs, we can say with rather great certainty, are essentially free from Salmonella enteriditis.

KNOX: That's Henrik Wegener, director of Denmark's National Food Institute. He says the country has made its eggs Salmonella-free by a strict control program that focuses on keeping the bacteria out of its chickens, from breeding stock to hatchlings to laying hens.

Mr. WEGENER: If you can control it in the chicken, then you have control of it. It's not like other Salmonella that may come in with a mouse or a little beetle or birds that are going around in the environment.

KNOX: One thing the Danes do is continually test their flocks with an antibody test that Wegener says is more sensitive than lab tests used in the United States that might miss infected birds.

Another thing they do differently in Denmark is cull any infected flocks, that is kill off entire flocks if any Salmonella is detected. Farmers are compensated.

In recent years, Wegener says, they haven't had to do much culling, and the control program costs only a penny or so per dozen eggs. But Patrick McDonough of Cornell University says that wouldn't work here.

Dr. PATRICK McDONOUGH (Director, Bacteriology and Mycology Section, Cornell University): I view Denmark like one of our states, and would that work nationwide? I think it wouldn't.

KNOX: He says American farmers wouldn't put up with such large-scale wasting of their animals.

Richard Knox, NPR News.

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