The recent recall of over 500 million salmonella-tainted eggs just might be the catalyst for increased food safety regulation. The fact that the eggs are from Wright County Farms, an Iowa-based producer, serves as a proverbial wake-up call. Unfortunately, owner Austin “Jack” DeCoster is no stranger to fines and lawsuits. In 1996, the Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Wright $3.6 million for workplace violations, including violations for workers handling dead chickens and manure without gloves, and violations at the workers’ housing, which included rats and cockroaches. Then Labor Secretary, Robert B. Reich called Wright “an agricultural sweatshop” where “the workers are treated like animals.”
Three years later, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against Wright after it appealed a $59,000 fine for water pollution and animal waste control violations at several Wright hog facilities in Iowa. Just a year later, the Iowa Attorney General called DeCoster the states first “habitual offender” of water quality laws, and fined him $150,000. Then in 2002 five undocumented Mexican immigrants said they were raped by supervisors, and lawsuit a filed against their employer, Wright, which ended up settling the suit for $1.5 million.
Ironically, a new ‘egg rule’ went into effect for “large farms” on July 9. The rule, according to a press release by the Food & Drug Administration (FDA), “provides specific requirements applicable to egg producers that will greatly facilitate compliance”
During an August 23 press conference, FDA Commissioner, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, Commissioner of Food and Drug said of the egg rule, “So we believe that had these rules been in place at an earlier time it would have very likely enabled us to identify the problems on this farm before this kind of outbreak occurred.”
Continuous champion for increasing food safety regulations, Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) sponsored a bill last year passed by the House which would give the FDA more inspectors and increase its power to look at the operations and records of producers. The bill would also give the FDA more power to trace the source of a suspected illness and the power to force a recall.
“You saw what happened with tomatoes, you saw what happened with lettuce, with peanuts, and now eggs,” DeLauro said. “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.”
Hamburg said the pending legislation in Congress “would give us that authority and other critical tools such as enhanced authorities to trace back products to the source, to require firms to implement preventive controls, and to provide FDA access to important records.”
“It would also strengthen our abilities to ensure the safety of foods being imported into the United States. So we do hope to see that legislation passed in a timely way,” Hamburg added.
Robert Guenther of the United Fresh Produce Association said the food industry wants more regulation. “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 said.’