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As egg recall expands, FDA chief says agency needs more authority

WASHINGTON (AP) - Food and Drug Administration chief Margaret
Hamburg said Monday her agency is limited by law to a mostly
reactive stance on food safety and argued that it needs a more
"preventive approach."
Giving a series of network interviews in the wake of the egg and
salmonella breakout, Hamburg said the FDA is taking the issue
"very, very seriously." At the same time, she said Congress
should pass pending legislation that would provide her agency with
greater enforcement power, including new authority over imported
food.
"We need better abilities and authorities to put in place these
preventive controls and hold companies accountable," Hamburg said
as she discussed the approximately 1,300 cases of salmonella
poisoning and the recall of roughly a half-billion eggs from two
Iowa egg distributors.
She also had some practical advice for consumers: Reject
over-easy eggs. She said that as federal investigators continue
their work with the companies involved, consumers should strictly
avoid "runny egg yolks for mopping up with toast."
Two Iowa farms linked to the disease outbreak - Wright County
Egg and Hillandale Farms - share suppliers of chickens and feed as
well as ties to an Iowa business with a history of violating state
and federal law.
The number of illnesses, which can be life-threatening,
especially to those with weakened immune systems, is expected to
increase. The most common symptoms are diarrhea, abdominal cramps
and fever eight to 72 hours of eating a contaminated product.
Jewanna Porter, a spokeswoman for the egg industry, said
Saturday the company Quality Egg supplies young chickens and feed
to both Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. The two share other
suppliers, she said, but she did not name them.
The egg industry has consolidated over recent years, placing
fewer, larger businesses in control over much of the nation's egg
supply to consumers.
The salmonella outbreak has raised questions about federal
inspections of egg farms. The FDA oversees inspections of shell
eggs, while the Agriculture Department is in charge of inspecting
other egg products.
William D. Marler, a Seattle attorney for a person who filed
suit alleging illness from tainted eggs in a salad at a restaurant
in Kenosha, Wis., said Sunday his firm has been retained by two
dozen families and was representing a woman who was hospitalized in
California.
Businessman Austin "Jack" DeCoster owns Wright County Egg and
Quality Egg. Wright County Egg recalled 380 million eggs Aug. 13
after it was linked to more than 1,000 cases of salmonella
poisoning. A week later, Hillandale Farms recalled 170 million
eggs.
DeCoster's companies have a long history of problems:
-In 1994, the state of Iowa assessed at least four separate
penalties against DeCoster Farms for environmental violations, many
of them involving hog waste.
-In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay $2 million in fines
to settle citations brought in 1996 for health and safety
violations at DeCoster's farm in Turner, Maine. The nation's labor
secretary at the time, Robert Reich, said conditions were "as
dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop." Reich's successor,
Alexis Herman, called the state of the farms "simply atrocious,"
citing unguarded machinery, electrical hazards, exposure to harmful
bacteria and other unsanitary conditions.
-In 2000, Iowa designated DeCoster a "habitual violator" of
environmental regulations for problems that included hog manure
runoff into waterways. The label made him subject to increased
penalties and prohibited him from building new farms.
-In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission
announced a more than $1.5 million settlement of an employment
discrimination lawsuit against DeCoster Farms on behalf of Mexican
women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment,
including rape, abuse and retaliation by some supervisory workers
at DeCoster's Wright County plants.
-In 2007, 51 workers were arrested during an immigration raid at
six DeCoster egg farms. His farms had been the subject of at least
three previous raids.
-In June 2010, Maine Contract Farming, the successor company to
DeCoster Egg Farms, agreed in state court to pay $25,000 in
penalties and to make a one-time payment of $100,000 to the Maine
Department of Agriculture over animal cruelty allegations that were
spurred by a hidden-camera investigation by an animal welfare
organization.
In a statement Sunday, Wright County Egg spokeswoman Hinda
Mitchell said the company had reacted quickly in the past to
correct its operations when "issues have been raised about our
farms."
"We are approaching our work with FDA in the same forthright
manner," she said.
The FDA investigation could take months, and sources of
contamination are often difficult to find.
The CDC said last week that investigations by 10 states since
April have identified 26 cases where more than one person became
ill. Preliminary information showed that Wright was the supplier in
at least 15 of those cases.
Hamburg appeared Monday on ABC's "Good Morning America," CBS's
"The Early Show," and NBC's "Today" show.

(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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