WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. egg producers will have to adopt tougher food safety measures during production, storage and transportation to help prevent the spread of a deadly strain of Salmonella bacterium in eggs that causes more than 142,000 illnesses a year, the government said on Tuesday.
The new rule, expected to improve the safety of 99 percent of all eggs sold in the United States, would reduce cases of Salmonella enteritidis infections from eggs by 60 percent and prevent 30 deaths each year, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
“This action underscores our strategy to prevent illnesses before they occur,” FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said.
The department said most egg producers with 3,000 or more laying hens must test their poultry houses for the bacterium and establish rodent, pest and biosecurity measures to prevent the spread of Salmonella throughout the farm.
The agency estimated these and other preventative measures would save $1.4 billion in health costs. It predicted the cost to the industry would be $81 million a year.
The new measure also would require eggs to be refrigerated at 45 degrees Fahrenheit (7 degrees Celsius) beginning 36 hours after the eggs, expanding the protection to include farms, transportation and storage. Currently, federal regulations require eggs to be refrigerated once they are packed and on retail shelves.
The agency said producers with at least 3,000 but fewer than 50,000 laying hens must comply with the new rule within 36 months. Producers with more than 50,000 laying hens — which produce about 71 percent of all eggs sold to consumers — have 12 months to meet the new standard.
The new egg rule was included as part of a broader food safety plan released by the Obama administration on Tuesday to improve the food supply following a series of large recalls in recent years tied to peppers, peanut products and spinach.
Howard Magwire, a vice president with United Egg Producers, said the group pushed for giving larger producers two years to follow the tougher rules. Many farmers, following voluntary state programs, already have testing plans in place.
“Most of our producers do some testing right now and they’re not going to miss a lick...others might have to step it up,” said Magwire. “Our producers have always supported the concept of an egg safety rule. We’re ready.”
The FDA said producers who find the Salmonella strain in their poultry house must conduct four additional tests from the representative sample during an eight-week period. If any of the four tests are positive, the eggs must be further processed to destroy the bacterium or used in a nonfood manner.
Producers whose eggs are processed, such as being pasteurized, will not be required to comply with the tougher preventative measures. FDA said they must still comply with the refrigeration rules.
To ensure compliance with the new rule, egg producers must have a prevention plan and records showing they are complying. Producers, except those with fewer than 3,000 hens or who sell all their eggs directly to consumers, must register with FDA.
Consumers who eat infected raw or undercooked eggs with the Salmonella strain can experience serious health problems, such as gastrointestinal illness, arthritis and death.
Editing by Marguerita Choy