The largest egg recall in history is a call to action, both on the national and the individual levels.

The federal regulatory system has not kept up with changes in the food business, creating the potential for widespread food contamination that could not have occurred in the past. It’s time for the Senate to pass a food safety bill that has been languishing in Congress behind other high-profile legislative fights.

At the same time, consumers should protect themselves and take food warnings seriously. As long as people treat all eggs as if they are contaminated and avoid eating them raw or undercooked, the impact of even a widespread outbreak can be limited.

The size of the egg scare is a function of the great consolidation that has been taking place in the industry, where a shrinking number of companies produce most of the eggs sold in supermarkets nationwide. According to a story in The Washington Post, 192 companies own about 95 percent of the laying hens in the country. Most of the companies are based in five states: Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania and California.

Just two Iowa companies have been implicated in the salmonella scare so far, but the recall of 500 million eggs, which they sell under 24 different brands, is causing concern all over the country.

That recall is voluntary because the Food and Drug Administration does not have the authority to order the recall of products. And the patchwork system of inspection – where the U.S. Department of Agriculture is responsible for the hens while the FDA looks at the eggs – creates too many opportunities for a threat to spread around the nation before it gets detected.

A version of the Food Safety Modernization Act, which passed the House last year, was drawn up by a bipartisan group of senators but has not been seen as enough of a priority to come up for a vote. This recall should illustrate why it belongs on the front burner.

In the meantime, consumers should take measures to protect themselves and should not assume that an egg is safe just because it has not been taken off the shelves. With our current food system, contamination can move much more quickly than regulators can, and everyone should be careful about what they eat.

 


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