Producers fell into an apparent gray area between FDA and USDA oversight.
This month's recall of more than half a billion eggs after a major salmonella outbreak highlights a black hole of sorts in the regulation of shell egg producers.
While both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and U.S. Department of Agriculture are charged with helping police the safety of the nation's food supply, neither appears to have been on the lookout for problems at facilities like the ones involved in the recall.
Asked last week on a conference call with reporters whether the FDA had inspected Iowa's Wright County Egg, where 380 million eggs were recalled starting Aug. 13. Sherri McGarry of the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition said it lacked jurisdiction over the firm and pointed to the USDA.
But the USDA says it has jurisdiction at shell egg producers only when it comes to grading eggs for size and quality, based mostly on shell appearance and condition. It has authority to conduct safety inspections only of companies that produce "egg product," which includes dried, frozen or liquid eggs.
"It's a big gap in federal oversight," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
"FDA clearly regulates shell eggs. They have the authority on the farm, but they haven't been exercising it," Smith DeWaal said, adding that the problem might be a lack of FDA resources.
The FDA's Investigations Operation Manual for fiscal year 2009 notes USDA's authority over egg product but says "FDA is responsible for shell eggs and egg-containing products that do not meet the USDA's definition of egg product." But the FDA says it only got clear jurisdiction with new egg safety rules it started to implement last month.
The Wright County recall, which an FDA official described as the biggest egg recall in recent history, was followed by a recall of 170 million eggs from Hillandale Farms of Iowa on Friday.
The two recalls are related, the FDA says, and involve eggs produced as early as April. Since spring, eggs related to the recalls are believed to have sickened hundreds of people -- possibly more than 1,000 -- including 14 in Minnesota.
The FDA didn't return requests for comment Monday. FDA chief Margaret Hamburg, giving a series of TV network interviews Monday, said her agency hasn't had enough authority to help prevent outbreaks like the salmonella illnesses linked to the two egg recalls.
She also said Congress should pass legislation stalled in the Senate that would increase the frequency of inspections and give the agency recall authority. Currently, food recalls are voluntarily, though companies often make them hand-in-hand with the FDA.
In Minnesota, the FDA contracts with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to do safety inspections of food plants under its purview. The Agriculture Department also does egg-grading for the USDA.
Grading-related inspections for USDA have a "safety component," said Nikki Neeser, the Minnesota Department of Agriculture's program manager for dairy, meat and egg inspections. For instance, temperatures for egg coolers are checked, she said. But "there's no inspections of the henhouses."
The Minnesota Agriculture Department has done full-scale inspections of shell egg producers after they've been linked to an outbreak of foodborne illness, but not on a regular basis like it does for other FDA-regulated food producers, Neeser said.
"It's been a little bit of a black hole in that it falls between the cracks."
She said the FDA has been working on procedures for the new egg safety rules that started going into effect last month. When those procedures are complete, "we expect [the FDA] to contact us to do inspections," Neeser said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003