Egg-associated illness caused by Salmonella has long been recognized as a serious public health problem. Specifically, Salmonella Enteritidis, a bacterium commonly found inside shell eggs that appear normal, continues to be one of the leading bacterial causes of foodborne illness in the United States. These eggs primarily become contaminated on the farm because of infection in the laying hens.

During the 1990s, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture implemented a series of post-egg production safety efforts such as refrigeration requirements designed to inhibit the growth of bacteria that may be in an egg. Those efforts, as well as egg quality assurance programs (EQAPs) and consumer and retailer education, contributed to a decrease in Salmonella Enteritidis illness during the mid-1990s. However, while these steps limited the growth of bacteria, they did not prevent the initial contamination from occurring. FDA and USDA officials became aware that further reductions in Salmonella Enteritidis illness could not be accomplished without additional federal measures addressing the contamination of shell eggs.

Just over three years ago, in July 2009, the FDA, in collaboration with the USDA’s  Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), announced a new food safety regulation that it expected would prevent approximately 79,000 cases of foodborne illness and 30 deaths caused by consumption of eggs contaminated with the bacterium Salmonella Enteritidis each year.

In July 2010, the rule become effective for egg producers having 50,000 or more laying hens. Most recently, as of this past Monday, July 9, 2012, egg producers with fewer than 50,000 but at least 3,000 laying hens whose shell eggs are not processed with a treatment, such as pasteurization, are required to comply with the egg safety regulation as well.

Some of the highlights under the rule include that egg producers whose shell eggs are not processed with a treatment, such as pasteurization must:

  • Buy chicks and young hens only from suppliers who monitor for Salmonella bacteria
  • Establish rodent, pest control, and biosecurity measures to prevent spread of bacteria throughout the farm by people and equipment
  • Conduct testing in the poultry house for Salmonella Enteritidis. If the tests find the bacterium, a representative sample of the eggs must be tested over an eight-week time period (four tests at two-week intervals); if any of the four egg tests is positive, the producer must further process the eggs to destroy the bacteria, or divert the eggs to a non-food use
  • Clean and disinfect poultry houses that have tested positive for Salmonella Enteritidis
  • Refrigerate eggs at 45 degrees F during storage and transportation no later than 36 hours after the eggs are laid (this requirement also applies to egg producers whose eggs receive a treatment, such as pasteurization).

To ensure compliance, egg producers must also maintain a written Salmonella Enteritidis prevention plan along with records documenting their compliance. Egg producers covered by this rule must also register with the FDA. The FDA will develop guidance and enforcement plans to help egg producers comply with the rule and will also begin inspecting medium-sized facilities with fewer than 50,000 but at least 3,000 laying hens in the final quarter of this year.