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Safety not a factor in inspections for egg quality

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 31, 2013 - The 2010 recall of more than 500 million eggs illustrates the lack of communication and coordination among federal agencies involved in the egg inspection process.

It also demonstrates the confusing structure of the system that provides authority and establishes which agencies have oversight when it comes to egg safety.

The three different offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Marketing Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Food and Safety Inspection Services -- were not communicating with each other or the department’s general counsel, a 2012 audit found.

And the agriculture department was not communicating well with the independent FDA, which had been given lead authority for egg safety.

Shortly following the August 2010 recall, an Ohio-based producer recalled more than 280,000 eggs -- of which 90 percent contained the official USDA grade mark for quality.

Likewise, so did most of the half a billion eggs recalled in August 2010.

“We look strictly at the quality of the egg, not the safety,” said Sam Jones, a spokesman for Agricultural Marketing Service. “Safety inspection of the egg is the responsibility of either FDA or FSIS.”

A 2012 federal audit by USDA’s Office of Inspector General, released in December, questioned the standards used by Jones’ office when applying the grade mark for quality to egg cartons. It handles the grading of eggs as “Grade A” or “Jumbo,” for example.  

Larger egg producers, about one-third of the industry, pay Agricultural Marketing Service to provide onsite certification personnel. Jones is quick to clarify that the USDA grade mark for quality is just that -- for quality.

Quality, according to Jones’ office, is reflected in the size, appearance and condition of the egg. An egg containing Salmonella could still be marked as grade AA and certified by quality inspectors.

However, the audit asserts that the grade mark is also an indication the eggs are “fit for human food” and that Agricultural Marketing Service practices should be updated.

The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is an independent, nonprofit newsroom devoted to coverage of agribusiness and related topics such as government programs, environment and energy.  Visit us at www.investigatemidwest.org.