Last year, the American public realized that there are major problems at egg production facilities, as the notorious Salmonella-egg outbreak sickened 1,900 people and led to a recall of more than 500 million eggs.
All of those eggs came from Iowa. You'd think the state would take an interest in fixing this problem immediately. But a new investigation by the Des Moines Register shows that not only do food safety problems persist at egg production facilities in Iowa, but also that government officials are withholding key data from the public regarding health lapses at these facilities.
Iowa is the nation's top egg-producing state, but right now (according to the Register) there is "almost no oversight of egg production, leaving that job to the federal government," which still has many gaps to fill. So much for fixing a problem.
The gaps? In addition to the mess between USDA and FDA responsibilities, egg producers are not required to report positive Salmonella results to any agency and are often alerted in advance about upcoming routine inspections.
Another obstacle the Register noted includes overcoming FDA’s unwillingness to publicly share the unsanitary conditions that exist at egg houses:
The FDA withheld an undisclosed number of reports in their entirety, and many of the inspection reports have several pages of notes completely blacked out on the grounds that they represent agency communications that are still subject to deliberation.
Still, the portions of the reports that have been disclosed show that even when egg producers are given advance notice of an inspection they may not be able to show full compliance with minimum food-safety requirements.
These inspection reports aren’t publicly available. The Register had to request them through the Freedom of Information Act, which is no easy process.
If our country consumes eggs from farms that don’t institute basic food safety measures, shouldn't the public have the right to know about government evidence showing as much?
This information is hardly trivial, either. The story notes data "such as the size of rodent infestations, the brand names under which the eggs are sold, and even the names of diseases documented at the egg farms" were blacked out in the reports.
The least that government officials could do is make publicly available records of such safety lapses -- especially if they aren't taking any action in response to their own reported concerns. The story details how some farms demonstrated inadequate Salmonella testing, or refused to report hens' exposure to disease to the state veterinarian, as required by law.
Big kudos to the Register for carrying out this investigation. It's really unfortunate that the uncovered issues couldn't be tackled from the start, rather than finding out in incomplete FDA reports a year after the fact.
As agency oversight remains deficient, we must rely on brave whistleblowers to protect our food supply. If employees on the egg farms, as well as government inspectors, felt safe enough to sidestep industry interests and report food safety threats, we wouldn't have to wait until another recall and multiple hospital bills to address the problem.
Sarah Damian is New Media Fellow for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower advocacy organization.