Tainted Eggs Renew Calls For Food Safety Overhaul

Eggs sit in an egg carton

Eggs apparently contaminated with salmonella bacteria have made more than a thousand people sick in the U.S., prompting a massive recall and renewed scrutiny of the nation's food safety program. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

The recall of a half-billion eggs after more than a thousand Americans have fallen ill from salmonella has some politicians and consumer advocates pushing for the first major overhaul of food safety laws in more than 70 years. Now, after languishing in Congress, some proposals to toughen the laws are in the spotlight.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), who has been working for decades to address the holes she sees in the nation's food safety system, says this recall should set off alarms.

"You saw what happened with tomatoes, you saw what happened with lettuce, with peanuts, and now eggs," she says. And government officials say that just since May, there have been four times as many salmonella outbreaks detected as would normally be expected.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), shown July 14 in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), shown last month in Washington, D.C., has long pushed for toughening food safety laws. Mark Wilson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mark Wilson/Getty Images

"You've got over half a billion eggs recalled, 1,300 people are sick. We're not talking about roads, bridges, parks here. We are really talking about people's health," she says. And a bill that passed the House of Representatives over a year ago, which DeLauro was a key sponsor of, might have helped limit the damage, she says.

The bill would give the Food and Drug Administration more inspectors and more power to examine producers' operations and records. It would also give the agency more power to quickly trace the source of a product suspected of causing illness — and the power to force a recall. DeLauro says the FDA needs that power to take food off the market before there's a crisis.

"Most people are incredibly shocked that the FDA does not already have the authority to do this," says Ami Gadhia of Consumers Union. Right now, the FDA can't force a recall, she says — it only requests that companies take food off the market. And that means it can take weeks of negotiations before a recall can be issued.

The House bill would give FDA the power to recall and more, she says: "It's going to give FDA additional resources, and it's going to give the agency the ability to staff up in ways that get at preventing foodborne illnesses before they happen."

Preventing outbreaks is also a goal of a similar bill — in the Senate. But the bill has been stalled for over a year now, waiting for a vote.

"The Senate has had in front of it a number of tremendous priorities — the health care reform bill has gone through the Senate, the financial reform bill has gone through the Senate — and we think this is a bill that deserves that same sort of attention and prioritization," Gadhia says.

It's not just the consumer advocates who want a food safety bill. The food industry generally supports it, too, says Robert Guenther of the United Fresh Produce Association.

"The main reason is, we need to make sure that there's a strong consumer confidence that the produce they're eating is safe and viable," he says.

The bill has significant support from both Democrats and Republicans, but some critics say it doesn't go far enough. It's directed only at the FDA. But as Gadhia points out, there are more than a dozen federal agencies and state and local agencies, too, that are responsible for different aspects of food safety. Eggs are just one example.

"FDA has the authority over shell eggs that you buy in those cartons at the grocery store," she says. But for the chickens themselves and the eggs that are cracked open before shipping — "that is under the jurisdiction of USDA," Gadhia says.

Complicating it further, the food processed into egg-containing products, like cookies, cakes and lasagna, are regulated, again, by the FDA.

Gadhia and others say what's really needed is a single food safety agency. But that's not what's on the table right now. A spokesman for the Senate majority leader says the Senate may turn to the FDA food safety bill after it returns from summer break.

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