Food and Drug Administration officials say they have found positive samples of salmonella that link two Iowa farms to a massive egg recall.
FDA officials said Thursday that investigators found salmonella in chicken feed at Wright County Egg that was used by that farm and also Hillandale Farms. They also found additional samples of salmonella in other locations at Wright County Egg. More than 550 million eggs from the two farms were recalled this month after they were linked to salmonella poisoning in several states.
Also Thursday, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said that there could now be as many as 1,470 illnesses linked to the outbreak, about 200 more than previously thought.
Sherri McGarry of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said the salmonella found at Wright County Egg matches the fingerprint of the salmonella found in many of those who were sickened. She said the tests indicate that contaminated feed is a source of the outbreak but possibly not the only source.
McGarry and other FDA officials emphasized in a briefing for reporters that the agency's investigation is ongoing, and that they do not yet know how the feed became contaminated. Investigators are analyzing as many as 600 samples from various places at the two farms.
FDA Deputy Commissioner Dr. Joshua Sharfstein said the investigators are not just looking at the feed, but at the "overall contamination of the facility." Contamination found in the feed could be a part of a larger problem, he said.
"While they have found it in the feed they are not confirming any sort of cause and effect relationship," he said.
The feed mill where the salmonella was found operates as part of the Wright County Egg facility and also provides feed to Hillandale Farms. Officials said they are not yet sure whether the feed came to the farm contaminated or was contaminated at the farms. They said there is no evidence at this time that the feed went to any other farms.
Congress is hoping to get more answers from the two farms, the FDA and the Agriculture Department in September. A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee announced it will hold a hearing on the recall Sept. 14.
The committee is inviting Austin "Jack" DeCoster, the owner of Wright County Egg, and Orland Bethel, the owner of Hillandale Farms, to testify. The panel is doing an investigation into the recall and has written both farms, asking about company operations, communications with the government and what they knew and when.
The panel has also written the FDA, which oversees the safety of shell eggs, and the Agriculture Department, which oversees other egg products and the health of the hens. The committee asked for records of inspections and past communications with the two farms, along with other documents. The FDA has said it has "no inspectional history" with the two farms.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who heads the spending committee that oversees the FDA and USDA, has also written letters to the two agencies.
A spokeswoman for Wright County Egg would not say if DeCoster will attend the September hearing, but said the company is "working right now" to respond to the committee.
"We will approach it in the same forthright manner as we have in our cooperation with FDA to date," said Hinda Mitchell.
DeCoster, who has paid millions of dollars in fines over the last 20 years for health, safety, immigration and environmental violations, has not responded to interview requests.
A worker at his office's headquarters near Galt, Iowa on Wednesday said he wasn't available, and in his home in Clarion, Iowa on Wednesday, his wife Patricia also said he was not around. She said the last few weeks "have been quite a time for us" but declined further comment.
A spokeswoman for Hillandale Farms also said the company is reviewing the committee's questions and "expect to cooperate in the same open manner as we have with the FDA."
FDA officials have said they don't expect the recall to grow beyond the two farms. The number of illnesses, which can be life-threatening, especially to those with weakened immune systems, is expected to increase.
Thoroughly cooking eggs can kill the bacteria. But health officials are recommending people throw away or return the recalled eggs.