As state and federal regulators try to figure out what went wrong at Midwestern facilities where eggs were contaminated with salmonella, they are turning their attention to Maine. They are looking at Maine to see how government regulations here helped avoid the contamination that has sickened at least 1,500.
Several current candidates for governor have pledged to ease Maine’s government regulations to help businesses grow and create jobs. The egg situation highlights why government regulations — and their enforcement — are necessary and can have positive public benefits.
Two farms in Iowa — Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms — recalled more than 500 million eggs last month after salmonella bacteria were found in eggs from the companies. Wright County Egg is owned by Jack DeCoster, who had a troubled history in Maine with regard to the treatment of workers and chickens.
Records obtained by congressional investigators show that Wright County Egg had salmonella problems as early as 2008. USA Today reported that the company had 426 positive results for salmonella, including 73 samples that were potentially positive for salmonella enteritidis, the strain involved in this summer’s outbreak, the records show. There is no indication the company notified local, state or federal officials.
In July, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration adopted stronger rules for large egg producers. If such a facility has a positive test for salmonella enteritidis it is required to test 1,000 eggs four times at two-week intervals.
After the outbreaks in Iowa were discovered, FDA inspectors found infestations of flies, maggots and rodents at Wright County Egg.
Maine Contract Farming, which is owned by the DeCoster family, feeds and cares for 5 million hens on the site of Quality Egg of New England in Turner, which is owned by a DeCoster associate. Together, the operations constitute the largest egg farm in New England.
In April 2009, what was then known as the DeCoster Egg Farm in Turner made headlines over a video documenting mistreatment of hens. The farm was also investigated for mistreatment of workers and was fined $3.6 million by the federal government because of workplace conditions.
Despite the problems, eggs from Maine have not been linked to human salmonella outbreaks for more than two decades, thanks to stringent vaccination and inspection rules.
A candidate for agriculture secretary in Iowa is now running on a platform of adopting Maine-style regulations for his state.
“I propose that the Iowa Legislature should adopt the model used by the state of Maine, which has been in place for 22 years and has been effective in protecting Maine’s eggs,” Francis Thicke said in a press release last week.
Maine’s rules, which exceed FDA regulations require vaccinations of laying hens, monthly inspections and tests for salmonella in egg facilities and testing of eggs if salmonella is found in the facility.
“These measures have worked well to protect the safety of Maine’s egg industry and would work well here in Iowa as well,” Thicke said.
Certainly, some state regulations can be simplified or clarified, but this case highlights the benefits of strong rules.