WASHINGTON -- Food and Drug Administration officials said Monday that there is no evidence a massive outbreak of salmonella in eggs has spread beyond two Iowa farms, although a team of investigators still is trying to figure out what caused it.
FDA officials said they do not expect the number of eggs recalled, 550 million, to grow.
Dr. Jeff Farrar, the FDA's associate commissioner for food protection, said 20 FDA investigators are at the two farms, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, and could be there until next week. He said preliminary findings should be available later this week.
As her agency investigates the cause, FDA chief Margaret Hamburg said the FDA hasn't had enough authority to help prevent outbreaks or order recalls (companies do that voluntarily).
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In California, egg producers said the state has much more stringent guidelines and testing procedures than the federal requirements.
Jill Benson, vice president of Modesto-based J.S. West, said the state's egg producers have been voluntarily complying with the California Egg Quality Assurance Plan for 15 years. The plan requires tests for salmonella and chemical residues in eggs throughout the production process.
"We do testing in multiple stages in the bird's life," she said. "We are so far beyond and above the curve than the rest of the country in regards to our testing. ... We have a really good handle on our programs like that."
Still, because of the state's size, a third of the eggs and egg products consumed in California come from elsewhere in the country.
Benson said it is important for consumers to check their eggs' origin and plant number to make sure they are not part of the recall.
The number of illnesses, which can be life-threatening, especially to those with weakened immune systems, is expected to increase. The federal Centers for Disease Control has said there could be as many as 1,300 salmonella illnesses linked to the eggs.
Many cases not reported
The CDC said that for every case reported, there could be 30 or more unreported cases.
Dr. Christopher Braden, a CDC epidemiologist involved in the investigation, said there have been 40 more cases reported since last week, but it isn't clear if all are linked to tainted eggs. Braden said the agency has not identified additional clusters of illness that would indicate that the outbreak has spread beyond the two Iowa farms.
The lack of oversight has become a bigger problem as the egg industry, like many other food industries, has consolidated in recent years, placing fewer, larger businesses in control of much of the nation's egg supply to consumers.
Businessman Austin "Jack" DeCoster, who has paid millions of dollars in fines for violations to the government over the past 20 years, owns Wright County Egg and Quality Egg. Wright County Egg recalled 380 million eggs Aug. 13 after it was linked to the almost 1,300 cases of salmonella poisoning. A week later, Hillandale Farms recalled 170 million eggs.
"These are high-risk facilities, so you need FDA checking on them regularly, at least once a year, to make sure they are complying with the regulations," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "You can't produce food at that level without a food safety cop on the beat."
J.S. West's Benson said the outbreak highlights the importance of knowing where your food comes from.
What "this brings home to me is that people are going to want to buy local eggs," she said.
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland contributed to this report.