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Massive Egg Recall Raises Food Safety Questions

Congress considers enacting new food laws

The recent egg contamination is one of the largest salmonella outbreaks ever recorded in the US.
The recent egg contamination is one of the largest salmonella outbreaks ever recorded in the US.

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This month, authorities ordered more than half a billion eggs off the shelves at American supermarkets due to fears of salmonella. More than 1,000 people have become sick after eating eggs contaminated with the disease-causing bacteria.

It's one of the largest salmonella outbreaks ever recorded in the U.S., and the most recent in a series of high-profile food borne disease outbreaks in recent years.

The outbreak may give new momentum to an effort to update U.S. food safety laws.

Deadly contamination

Ohio resident Randy Napier lost his mother in another recent food safety failure.

Shortly after New Year's Day last year, his 80-year-old mother, Nellie, became sick with several days of severe diarrhea.

"The only thing she likes to snack on is peanut butter on bread. So that's all she was eating," he says.

But as the Napiers soon discovered, peanut butter was at the center of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella. By the time doctors identified it as the culprit, Nellie was hospitalized. Her organs soon shut down.

Randy says she was in tremendous pain. "It was about four, five days of - excuse the language - just utter hell."

She died on January 26. Eight others died during the outbreak and more than 700 people in 46 states got sick.

Massive recall

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recalled nearly 4,000 products and countless individual items, including crackers, cookies, cereal, ice cream and even dog food.

The scope of the outbreak surprised Randy Napier. "I could not even imagine something you go into the store and you buy off the shelf would kill you."  

All those products on store shelves across the country had one thing in common: they all contained peanuts produced by a single company: the Peanut Corporation of America.

This month, a new salmonella outbreak has triggered an FDA recall of more than 500 million eggs produced by two closely-linked farms.

The reason for these huge outbreaks has a lot to do with how Americans get their food today. Food manufacturers have gotten bigger and more efficient, pushing out most small, local operations.

"Foods are produced in large quantities and distributed widely across the country," says epidemiologist Robert Wallace at the University of Iowa. "And when there's a problem in the safety of that food, a lot of people are then exposed, and it's over a broad geographic area. And that's really the problem."

Illness not on the rise

But despite the big numbers when problems occur, Wallace says it's hard to know whether America's overall food safety is really suffering because most cases of food poisoning go unreported.

According to the best data available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, rates of salmonella infection haven't changed much in the last decade, and rates of many other food borne illnesses are declining.

While it's impossible to reduce outbreaks to zero, America's food supply is one of the safest in the world, according to Kelli Ludlum with the American Farm Bureau Federation, the nation's largest farmers' group. It's also "what allows us to enjoy foods that we probably wouldn't be able to otherwise," she says.

Ludlum adds that Americans have made trade-offs for their modern food supply.

"Personally, I wouldn't want to go back to the food supply of 50 years ago. I don't cook that much. I certainly don't [preserve], so having to provide for myself all those things would be more than just inconvenient."

Outdated law

But while the way Americans feed themselves has changed over the last 50 years, the law governing food safety haven't, according to Erik Olson, head of food safety at the research and advocacy group the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"Right now in the United States, we have an antiquated law that's over 70 years old," he says, "and it reacts to contamination problems rather than preventing them."

Congress is considering updating that law, and the latest outbreak may give that effort a push.

"Certainly FDA does need more resources. We've said that for a long time," says the Farm Bureau's Kelli Ludlum. "And they need more direction on how to use those resources."

The House of Representatives passed a food safety bill last year, but the Senate has not passed its version. Randy Napier, who lost his mother to Salmonella, is heading to Washington, DC, soon with a message for his senators.

"Granted, things are going to cost a little more to be safer," he says. "But it has to be safer. It has to be. Or the people are just gonna keep dying."

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