Scrambled, Over Easy or Contaminated?

08/20/2010 10:36 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Egg Recall Another Reason For Senate to Pass the FDA Food Safety Bill and Make Sure Unsafe Food Never Makes it to Store Shelves

Like many consumers, I learned over breakfast about this week's recall of 380 million eggs (that's 32 million dozen if you're counting) by Iowa-based Wright County Eggs.

I had to wonder how many breakfasts were ruined as consumers learned about the possibility of salmonella contamination in the scrambled eggs and omelettes already on their table?

How many cartons of eggs will go back to the stores as consumers try to figure out if they purchased any of the eggs that entered the food supply from just one industrial-sized poultry farm in Galt, Iowa?

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began noticing an increase in cases of illness from salmonella in May, and noted increases to four times the seasonal norm in June and July, we're seeing a voluntary recall from the company only now in late August.

It is unacceptable to delay a critical public health announcement, yet as too often happens with so-called voluntary recalls, it means many millions of those eggs are already in grocery stores and kitchens across the country, or on breakfast tables this week. This means that we are likely to see more people getting sick before this recall is over. The government says that hundreds have already gotten sick.

This is by no means the first big food recall this summer. In June, Kellogg's recalled 28 million boxes of Froot Loops, Apple Jacks and other breakfast cereals because chemicals in their packaging gave the cereal an unusual smell and flavor and made some consumers nauseous.

Last week, Fresh Express recalled 2800 cases of its Veggie Lovers Salad because of a positive test for e. coli contamination.

In all of these cases, the food was already on store shelves and in consumer kitchens - putting our health at risk-- before the company issued a voluntary recall.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there are 76 million cases of food borne illness each year, with 325,000 hospitalizations and 5000 deaths.

In the United States.

In the 21st century.

That's unacceptable.

The egg recall is a good example of how an outbreak of food-borne illness can begin in one food factory and become a national outbreak involving multiple processors and stores in all 50 states. Wright County Eggs ships shell eggs to processors in eight states who then sell them across the country under at least thirteen different brands.

Once the genie is out of the bottle, an outbreak like this is difficult to contain.

FDA needs expanded authority to inspect food processing facilities to keep unsafe food off grocery store shelves in the first place, and needs mandatory recall authority to expedite action when problems occur. Otherwise, how can it protect consumers?

The U.S. Senate has the opportunity to bring the nation's food safety system into the 21st century by finishing the job of reforming the Food and Drug Administration's food safety authority.

The House of Representatives passed its food safety bill on a bipartisan vote more than a year ago. The Senate's bipartisan bill has been waiting for floor time since the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee reported it out in November 2009.

To protect American consumers, when the Senate returns in September, it should waste no time in sending the FDA Food Safety Modernization bill (S. 510) to President Obama's desk.