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FDA Implements 'Egg Rule,' A Decade Later
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FDA Implements 'Egg Rule,' A Decade Later

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FDA Implements 'Egg Rule,' A Decade Later

FDA Implements 'Egg Rule,' A Decade Later
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Janet Weaver, of Des Moines, Iowa, shops for eggs at a Dahl's supermarket on Aug. 23. i

Janet Weaver, of Des Moines, Iowa, shops for eggs at a Dahl's supermarket on Monday. A sign on the cooler said the eggs were not affected by the egg recall. In the wake of a salmonella outbreak, the FDA is using a newly implemented plan that had originally been proposed during the Clinton administration. Charlie Neibergall/AP hide caption

toggle caption Charlie Neibergall/AP
Janet Weaver, of Des Moines, Iowa, shops for eggs at a Dahl's supermarket on Aug. 23.

Janet Weaver, of Des Moines, Iowa, shops for eggs at a Dahl's supermarket on Monday. A sign on the cooler said the eggs were not affected by the egg recall. In the wake of a salmonella outbreak, the FDA is using a newly implemented plan that had originally been proposed during the Clinton administration.

Charlie Neibergall/AP

As the Food and Drug Administration investigates the causes of a salmonella outbreak that led to the recall of a half-billion eggs this month, the agency is also implementing a program to inspect egg producers. The program is new this summer, but it was first proposed more than a decade ago.

It was a Saturday in December 1999 when President Bill Clinton proposed the Egg Rule. He told a radio audience that salmonella contamination in eggs was a health risk to be taken seriously.

"That's why today I'm taking new action on food safety to cut in half, over the next five years, the number of salmonella cases attributed to eggs. And our goal is to eliminate these cases entirely by 2010," Clinton said.

Obviously, that target date has slipped.

But egg producers say it wasn't their doing.

"No, we never tried to delay or object to the rule itself," says Howard Magwire, vice president of government relations for United Egg Producers. The association of producers includes, among many others, the two Iowa companies where the tainted eggs originated and started this summer's panic.

Magwire says the regulatory process moved only in fits and starts and left the egg producers waiting for the FDA to act.

At the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Food Safety Director Caroline Smith DeWaal largely agrees. "The agency just proceeded very, very slowly in moving the regulation forward," she says.

DeWaal says one big roadblock after 2000 was the Bush administration's Department of Health and Human Services: It didn't want to expand the FDA's responsibility this way.

And when the proposed Egg Rule did move forward in 2004 and again in 2008, the United Egg Producers did not object to the rule itself, as Magwire says. But they did question the FDA's ability to do the inspections.

Magwire says that some states already had voluntary programs, and the number of salmonella cases was dropping nationwide.

He also got to make his case to the White House Office of Management and Budget, which, DeWaal says, was basically anti-regulation during the Bush administration.

"The egg industry clearly knew they had a friendly audience at OMB, for delaying or changing aspects of the regulation," DaWaal says.

In letters written to regulators at that time, Magwire pointed out that the FDA had new burdens inspecting imported food.

And its budget was being squeezed.

He asked if the FDA really wanted to add more than 4,000 individual inspections of farms to its existing workload. Magwire insists his people have no special problem with the FDA. "That's not been a disagreement between the industry and the FDA. It's just been us urging that [using other agency inspectors is] a good way to implement it," Magwire says.

And that "good way," he says, is for state inspectors, or the U.S. Department of Agriculture, to do safety inspections for the FDA.

"We said, 'Hey, these folks are already ... at our packing plants four times a year, which is where many of our farms are located. Since they're going there anyway, come to an understanding with them where they can perform the inspections.' "

But the state inspection programs are voluntary. And the USDA inspectors are in the Agricultural Marketing Service, which doesn't have a culture of safety enforcement.

So DeWaal is skeptical.

"I mean, clearly the voluntary programs haven't been sufficient. And also the [Agricultural Marketing Service] is a quality agency, not a safety agency," she says.

The upshot: The Egg Rule didn't go forward until the Obama administration took office last year. And it didn't take effect until July 9.

The FDA recall this month by the FDA reaches back to cover eggs since early April.

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