Federal inspectors who checked out two Iowa egg farms at the root of a major salmonella outbreak say they found scurrying mice, leaking or piled up chicken manure, unsealed holes in walls and uncaged hens tracking through waste.
At Wright County Egg in Galt, Iowa, inspection reports released Monday noted wild birds on the premises, maggots and flies "too numerous to count" and rusted holes in feed bins -- all sanitation problems that experts say can allow salmonella to reach egg-laying hens.
"The outside access doors to the manure pits ... had been pushed out by the weight of the manure, leaving open access to wildlife or domesticated animals," said the report by Food and Drug Administration inspectors, who counted 31 live mice while on the premises this month.
The picture painted in an inspection report on Hillandale Farms of New Hampton, Iowa, was only slightly less disturbing. Inspectors noted more than 70 holes, mostly small rodent burrows, and several larger gaps or holes in walls and doors, among other problems. Three mice were spotted by inspectors.
Wright County and Hillandale are the first U.S. egg producers to be inspected under new federal standards that took effect July 1. The two inspections stem from the investigation into the salmonella outbreak that has sickened an estimated 1,470 people, but FDA officials say they intend to inspect the 600 largest egg producers over the next 15 months.
"We have no reason to believe this is indicative of practices throughout the industry," Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for food, said of the two inspections. "This is a set of practices that appears to be associated with a very significant and unusually large outbreak of illness.''
Neither facility followed their bio-security plans, which are designed to curb transmission of pathogens, the inspection reports said, and Wright County Egg employees didn't wear or change protective clothing when moving from one production house to another, a standard protective measure.
Wright County Egg, which recalled 380 million eggs this month, said it has made repairs or taken corrective measures on the vast majority of the problems identified by the FDA, working around the clock to "demonstrate our continued commitment to running our farms in the most responsible manner and to ensuring the safety of the eggs we produce."
The inspection on Aug. 12-30 covered five farm sites, including 73 barns, the company said in a statement.
Wright County Egg is owned by Jack DeCoster, who has a history of environmental, labor and immigration violations at egg operations in Maine, Iowa and elsewhere.
Hillandale said it has corrected many of its problems and "will be in full compliance as soon as possible." Hillandale has recalled 170 million eggs in the outbreak.
It is unclear how many Minnesota egg producers will be inspected, or who will conduct the reviews. The Minnesota Agriculture Department, which handles other types of federal inspections for the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture, has said it is willing to conduct egg-producer inspections.
"We will be prioritizing inspections based on our assessment of risk posed by specific facilities," said the FDA's Taylor. "So facilities we think have been at potentially the greatest risk of problems will be inspected first."
But Dr. Nicole Neeser, manager of Minnesota's dairy, meat, poultry and egg inspection program, said the FDA and the state must first sign a contract authorizing the regulatory reviews. Then state inspectors will need to be trained to enforce the new federal requirement, she said.
Dr. Jeffrey Bender, director of the Center for Animal Health & Food Safety at the University of Minnesota, said many egg producers already have strict controls in place to reduce salmonella transmission. At every operation, he said, wild animals, especially rodents, are a big concern because they carry the pathogen into the barns, contaminating the chicken feed.
In a related development Monday, Sparboe Farms of Litchfield said it is voluntarily recalling shell eggs supplied by the two Iowa farms linked to the outbreak. The eggs, sold mostly in bulk cartons, are marked with plant #1167 and Julian dates 214, 215 and 219 or plant #1906 and Julian dates 211 and 219.
David Shaffer • 612-673-7090