WASHINGTON — The head of the Food and Drug Administration on Monday renewed her call for passage of stalled legislation to give her agency more tools to ensure food safety and prevent dangers such as the salmonella outbreak that has sickened at least 2,000 people and led to the recall of 550 million eggs.
As the investigation into the cause of the nearly two-week-old recall continued, political pressure began building on regulators and the operators of the two egg-laying operations believed responsible for the outbreak, with congressional overseers seeking information about conditions at the egg farms and about the rigor of federal oversight.
Two Iowa egg producers with ties to each other, Hillandale Farms of Iowa Inc. and Wright County Egg Farms, voluntarily recalled the eggs in a series of announcements beginning Aug. 13. FDA officials described it as one of the largest egg recalls in history.
The FDA ordered the recall after nearly 2,000 episodes of salmonella poisoning were reported between May and July, mostly in the Midwest, according to the Centers for Disease Control.
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg said the delay in the recall stemmed from the difficulty of tracing the source of contamination. The form of salmonella involved in the outbreak is the most common, making it hard to determine its origin, she said.
Hamburg said her agency needs the authority granted in the proposed legislation to order recalls, instead of relying on private businesses.
The House passed food safety legislation in July 2009 and a Senate committee approved similar legislation, with bipartisan backing, in November. But the latter version hasn't made it to the floor for a vote by the full Senate, partly because of more pressing legislation such as the health care overhaul, and partly because of concern that some lawmakers would attach amendments that would derail it.
The bill also would require food producers to implement safety plans, give the FDA more access to company records and make it easier to trace the sources of contamination.
Hamburg noted the "unfortunate irony" that new rules specifically governing egg safety went into effect July 9, too late to change the course of the outbreak.
Hamburg said she believed that had those rules been in place sooner, "it would very likely have enabled us to identify the problems on this farm before this kind of outbreak occurred."
She advised consumers to cook their eggs thoroughly to avoid any potential problems.
"No more runny egg yolks for mopping up with toast," Hamburg said during an interview on NBC's "Today" show.
FDA officials said they do not expect the number of eggs recalled — 550 million — to grow.
Jeff Farrar, the FDA's associate commissioner for food protection, said 20 FDA investigators are at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, and could be there until next week. He said preliminary findings of the investigation should be available later this week.
Farrar said the chicks that came to the farms from a Minnesota hatchery appear to have been free of illness, so contamination most likely happened at the Iowa locations. The FDA is looking at eight different sites on the farms where laying hens were reared as well as other locations, he said.
Earlier Monday, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., who chairs the FDA and USDA appropriations subcommittee, sent a letter to Hamburg and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack seeking information about how aggressively their agencies had monitored Wright County Egg and other firms controlled by Austin "Jack" DeCoster, who has a long history of running afoul of environmental and labor laws.
Also on Monday, Democratic Reps. Henry Waxman of California and Bart Stupak of Michigan, who are members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, sent letters to DeCoster and to Hillandale requesting information and records pertaining to the recall.