Food Safety:

U.S. Lacks a Consistent Farm-to-Table Approach to Egg Safety

RCED-99-184: Published: Jul 1, 1999. Publicly Released: Jul 1, 1999.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the adequacy of the system for ensuring the safety of eggs, focusing on whether: (1) a prevention-based approach to food safety has been applied to egg production and processing; (2) a new federal policy on egg refrigeration will effectively reduce the risks associated with contaminated eggs; (3) federal and state policies on serving eggs to vulnerable populations and dating egg cartons are consistent; and (4) federal egg safety resources are used efficiently and policies are coordinated effectively.

GAO noted that: (1) the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has not established a prevention-based approach to shell egg production and processing that would reduce or eliminate Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) contamination by identifying, controlling, and monitoring known safety risks; (2) at the state level, 13 states, responsible for about 38 percent of the nation's egg production, have established voluntary prevention-based programs for egg farms; (3) however, because these programs use different approaches to testing for the presence of SE and monitoring the farms, they do not provide a uniform level of risk reduction; (4) moreover, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) does not require a prevention-based approach in processing plants where eggs are broken to create egg products; (5) the first national requirement to refrigerate eggs at 45 degrees Fahrenheit or below from the time they are packed until they reach the consumer may not be as effective as possible in reducing the risks from eggs contaminated with SE; (6) FSIS has issued regulations that take effect in August 1999 requiring that eggs be refrigerated after packing until they reach retail locations; (7) however, once eggs reach these locations, federal regulations will not require that they be refrigerated because FDA has not yet issued the necessary regulations; (8) inconsistent policies and practices in three areas have weakened the nation's egg safety efforts; (9) only half the states have followed FDA's recommendation that that they require food service operators to use pasteurized eggs or egg products when serving populations that are more likely to suffer severe health consequences from eating contaminated eggs; (10) in addition, inconsistent policies on returning eggs from grocery stores to processors to be repackaged, redated, and returned to the retail level and inconsistent practices for expiration dating on egg cartons can mislead consumers about the eggs' freshness and may pose a food safety risk; (11) the organizational and regulatory framework for egg safety makes it difficult to ensure that resources are directed to the areas of highest risk and that policies are effectively coordinated; and (12) in addition, although GAO reported in 1992 on the need for better coordination between FDA and the Department of Agriculture on egg safety issues, each agency is developing its own labelling requirements for egg cartons that will become effective at different times, and the agencies have still not agreed on a comprehensive unified approach for improving egg safety.

Matter for Congressional Consideration

  1. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Congress has not chosen to take action on this recommendation.

    Matter: To provide an organizational focus for the nation's egg safety policies and activities, Congress may wish to consider consolidating responsibility for egg safety in a single federal department.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The December 1999 Egg Safety Action Plan, prepared by USDA and FDA, includes an objective to conduct additional research on commercial egg processing technologies, including rapid cooling before and after processing. USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) was assigned responsibility for this objective. In fiscal year 2000, ARS was appropriated funds to conduct research on the development of improved egg refrigeration systems. They are in the process of hiring someone to conduct the research.

    Recommendation: To reduce the time needed to lower the internal temperature of eggs to 45 degrees, the Secretary of Agriculture and the Commissioner of Food and Drugs should jointly study the costs and benefits of implementing rapid cooling techniques in egg processing and packing operations and, depending on the results, take appropriate action.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Food and Drug Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: USDA's Food Safety and Inspection Service has developed regulations to implement this recommendation, which they plan to implement by December 2004.

    Recommendation: To enhance safety protections in egg products processing plants, the Secretary of Agriculture should develop regulations to require these plants to implement HACCP systems.

    Agency Affected: Department of Agriculture

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition issued new rules for Egg Safety, which addresses this recommendation.

    Recommendation: To reduce the threat of SE contamination during egg production and processing, the Commissioner of Food and Drugs should develop a model hazard analysis and critical control point-based (HACCP) program for egg farms and processing plants, that could be adopted by the states. This program should define the minimum national standards, including microbial testing, for egg safety at these locations.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Food and Drug Administration

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The December 1999 Egg Safety Action Plan, prepared by USDA and FDA, includes an objective to conduct additional research on commercial egg processing technologies, including rapid cooling before and after processing. USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) was assigned responsibility for this objective. In fiscal year 2000, ARS was appropriated funds to conduct research on the development of improved egg refrigeration systems. They are in the process of hiring someone to conduct the research.

    Recommendation: To reduce the time needed to lower the internal temperature of eggs to 45 degrees, the Secretary of Agriculture and the Commissioner of Food and Drugs should jointly study the costs and benefits of implementing rapid cooling techniques in egg processing and packing operations and, depending on the results, take appropriate action.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services: Public Health Service: Food and Drug Administration

 

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