Tainted Eggs Still a Threat; Expert Advice for Small-Scale Egg Producers

Contact: Anne Lichtenwalner, (207) 581-2789

ORONO — The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented new egg-handling safety regulations this year for corporate producers after Salmonella enteritis (SE) outbreaks in the Midwest and the recall of millions of chicken eggs as a result. SE-contaminated eggs, however, remain a threat for any size of farm, including backyard chicken owners throughout Maine. SE is the salmonella strain most likely to cause egg-borne disease in humans.

As the FDA becomes more involved in food safety on the farm, small poultry producers may wonder how they can assure the quality of their products and reduce the risk of infectious disease in their flocks.

Anne Lichtenwalner, director of University of Maine’s Animal Health Lab, a diagnostic lab on the Orono campus assisting livestock and poultry farmers, is available to discuss precautions that consumers and small-scale egg producers can take to reduce risks. She also is Maine’s Extension veterinarian and a member of the animal and veterinary sciences faculty.

Routine environmental testing has long been required of major producers, but not of small to mid-size producers, Lichtenwalner says. As of 2010, large egg producers (more than 50,000 layers on a single farm) were required to follow the FDA “egg rule,” finalized in 2009. In July 2012, the egg rule will extend to mid-size farms (more than 3,000 layers) that do not sell all their eggs directly to consumers.

Since most small egg producers either sell directly to customers or have fewer than 3,000 layers, the current FDA rules detailing bio-security, pest control, record-keeping, environmental sampling and egg-testing requirements do not apply. Some of these requirements, however, are based on common sense and good farm practices, and should be followed nonetheless, says Lichtenwalner. UMAHL can test the flock’s environment for salmonella.

In addition, many flocks are allowed to “free range,” and due to the presence of old buildings, abandoned farm machinery and other sources of heavy metals, sometimes eggs can become contaminated. UMAHL also can assist with testing for heavy metals in eggs.

Bacterial or other contamination of eggs “is an emerging issue in food and it always will be,” she says, particularly in light of the popularity of raising chickens in backyard, residential settings. “Good, basic, common-sense food handling techniques can kill salmonella,” Lichtenwalner says. Use hot, soapy water to wash hands, utensils, counters and cutting boards, rinse well and dry.

Lichtenwalner can be reached at (207) 581-2789 for more information.