The North Carolina farm at the center of a large egg recall had ongoing problems with rodents along with other unsanitary conditions, according to a U.S. government report this week that has reignited concerns over food safety in an industry that has shrunk to a small number of producers.
An inspection report by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said poultry houses at a facility owned by Rose Acre Farms, one of the largest U.S. egg producers, had prolonged rodent infestation. In addition, the report Tuesday said conditions in its egg-processing facility allow for pathogens to survive and spread.
Rose Acre Farms, based in Seymour, Ind., voluntarily recalled nearly 207 million eggs on April 13, after more than 20 people reported salmonella illnesses that have been tied to the eggs. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Monday launched an investigation into a salmonella outbreak that has spread to nine states.
The FDA’s report “is based on raw observations and in some cases lack proper context,” said Gene Grabowski, a spokesman for Rose Acre Farms. He said the company was preparing a formal response to the FDA and urged “everyone to wait until all the facts are presented.”
Food-safety advocates say the outbreak is a reminder of how problems at one facility can threaten large volumes of food when production is concentrated among relatively few producers.
The egg industry has seen dramatic consolidation in recent decades, with just 60 companies representing 90% of U.S. egg production, according to the United Egg Producers. The U.S. has roughly 150 commercial egg companies, a decline from some 10,000 in the 1970s, the group said.
“It raises the stakes when you have a giant facility,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, an advocacy group. “If something goes wrong, it won’t be local or regional outbreaks but national outbreaks because these plants ship to the whole country.”
The egg recall is likely the largest in the U.S. since 2010, when two Iowa farms recalled more than 500 million eggs. The CDC traced nearly 2,000 salmonella illnesses to the tainted eggs, and the owner of one company and his son were sentenced to three months in prison for their role in the outbreak.
Lee Schulz, an agricultural economist at Iowa State University, said a massive disease outbreak linked to eggs is a low probability event, and that having fewer egg producers enables a faster response to food safety breaches.
“Because of the industry’s consolidated nature, if there are issues we can clean them up relatively quickly,” Mr. Schulz said, adding that consolidation also has led to lower egg prices for consumers and often improved quality and consistency. The recalled eggs are a fraction of annual U.S. egg production, he said.
After tracing illnesses to the North Carolina farm, federal inspectors found dozens of rodents—alive and dead—in the farm’s poultry houses, including in manure pits and on bird platforms. A review of the farm’s records showed “an ongoing rodent infestation,” the inspectors said.
FDA also observed unsanitary conditions in the farm’s egg-processing facility, which inspectors said support the growth and spread of “filth and pathogens” that could contaminate processing equipment and eggs.
While rodents are common in poultry houses, Rose Acre Farms has struggled to control their numbers before. In 2011, FDA sent a warning letter to the company saying “alarmingly high” rodent populations at an Indiana facility and traces of salmonella in its egg laying houses increased risks to consumer health. In 2014, the FDA said the farm had addressed the violations.
“The 2011 incident was for one Indiana facility, and Rose Acre Farms resolved the issues to the satisfaction of the FDA,” Mr. Grabowski said. “That farm has not had any problems since.”
Lawmakers and advocates have raised concerns over whether regulators are doing enough to prevent outbreaks. The FDA said it inspects facilities like Rose Acre Farms every three to five years, or more often if necessary. A U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector is at the North Carolina facility daily, the FDA said.
Rose Acre Farms began in the 1930s as a small family operation with two hen houses and 1,000 hens. It has grown throughout the Midwest and Southeast to include 17 facilities in eight states. The North Carolina farm houses three million laying hens and produces 2.3 million eggs a day.
Its eggs had been distributed in nine states, from New York to Colorado to Florida, and marketed under multiple brands including those sold at Food Lion, Walmart Inc. and other stores, the FDA said.
Food Lion didn’t respond to requests for comment.
“These findings are concerning,” Walmart said in a statement, adding that as soon as the company was notified of the recall, it began alerting stores to remove the eggs from their shelves and inventory. The company also has blocked sales of the recalled eggs at its registers. “We hold our suppliers to high standards and are looking in to this issue,” Walmart said.
The CDC has warned consumers not to eat the recalled eggs, but to discard them or return them to supermarkets for a refund.
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