A salmonella outbreak in eggs from Iowa that dominated the news last month demonstrated how seriously the nation takes food safety concerns.
But Jim Chakeres, executive director of the Ohio Poultry Association, said the effort to track the eggs back to the farm demonstrated that the nation’s food safety system worked.
“This is what keeps our food supply safe, the fact that we have recall measures and that farmers and producers are willing to voluntarily recall product when there is any type of illness associated,” he said on a recent edition of Ohio Farm Bureau’s radio show Town Hall Ohio.
He also noted while this was an unusually large egg recall, it still only represented less than 1 percent of the eggs produced in the country, and eggs contaminated with salmonella are relatively rare.
“We used to talk about 10 years ago that there was one in 20,000 (eggs contaminated) but that was before all of the current Egg Quality Assurance Programs. We think it’s far less than that today,” Chakeres said.
Chickens can become infected with salmonella by eating contaminated feed. Salmonella can also be spread by rodents or insects. The most common way for an egg to become infected is when it comes in contact with fecal matter from a contaminated hen. Infected hens can also contaminate the inside of an egg before the hard shell is formed. However, not every egg from an infected hen contains salmonella.
Jennifer Perry, an Ohio State University food safety expert, said studies show no evidence that the type of production system that hens are raised in affects the risk of salmonella.
For example, when it comes to rodents, insects or contaminated feed “those risks are still going to be there regardless of how the chickens are raised,” she said.
Through measures such as Ohio’s Egg Quality Assurance Program, Chakeres said farmers source their chicks from certified salmonella free flocks, test their pullets at 14 to 16 weeks of age, utilize vaccination programs and test their chickens’ living environment as well as manure.
If salmonella is detected, eggs are typically diverted to a breaking facility where they are pasteurized to kill the bacteria and tested again before being shipped to the consumer. Risk of salmonella is eliminated if eggs are fully cooked.
“What we usually say in food science is that if you want sterile food you need to eat canned food all the time, just canned food,” Perry said. “Most products do have bacteria on them and that’s usually something that we expect.”
She also said that due to the high-profile attention that food-safety issues have received, there is more interest and more money available for research. One new method looks to use ozone gas to pasteurize eggs without altering the quality. However, consumers are sometimes leery of new food technologies, as was the case with irradiation, she acknowledged.
“Consumers have been so averse to accepting that technology, that it’s really not used very much. I think it’s really underutilized,” Perry said.
Perry said that consumers also tend to forget their role in making sure that food stays safe once it is in the home environment.
“The vast majority of the food that is produced in this country is completely safe and nothing to worry about,” she said.