With a little luck, this summer's massive egg recall could be the last of its kind in the United States, and a Lenexa company will play a part in making that happen.
More farms are vaccinating their poultry against salmonella, and Ceva Biomune is the biggest of three U.S. companies making salmonella vaccines for egg-laying hens.
Since the salmonella outbreak and the recall of nearly 550 million eggs, the Food and Drug Administration has been criticized for not ordering use of the vaccines years ago. After a similar crisis in 1997, Great Britain pushed the vaccines and says it has virtually eliminated the problem.
But even without a government mandate, Ceva Biomune estimates that 50 to 60 percent of U.S. egg producers now vaccinate their hens to prevent salmonella. Last month the FDA issued new safety rules for egg producers that should keep the demand for the vaccines climbing, said Gary Baxter, the company's director of marketing and business development.
"We've seen a steady increase in demand for the vaccines in the past several years," he said. Although the new rules don't require vaccination, "we should see those numbers grow even more."
It also helps that the vaccines are relatively inexpensive.
Cost estimates vary, but the high end appears to be 40 to 60 cents a bird, including the cost of administering the vaccines. A single bird can lay about 270 eggs in its lifetime.
Darrell Trampel, a poultry veterinarian and professor at Iowa State University, said, "I'm not sure everybody will be using the vaccines, but I believe a vast majority of egg farms will be
doing so in the near future. With increased vaccinations and preventive measures that the industry has undertaken in the past 20 years, I certainly hope we don't see this again."
Ceva Biomune, which has 200 employees in Lenexa, estimates that its sales for vaccines in the egg-laying industry will increase 40 percent this year over 2009.
To help it stay the No. 1 producer in the U.S., the company is expanding and expects to open a new poultry vaccine production center early next year.
The current salmonella outbreak began in May and has affected two egg producers in Iowa, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms of Iowa.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 1,500 people have been sickened in the outbreak in at least 23 states.
Ceva Biomune has supplied vaccines to both farms, Baxter said. However, not all the hens at those farms have been vaccinated. The two producers have been vaccinating new hens as they receive them, but they just started last year.
With 7 million birds at seven separate facilities, it could take 18 months before the turnover of hens results in all of them being vaccinated.
"So, about 80 percent of our hens have been vaccinated," said Julie DeYoung, a Hillandale Farms spokeswoman.
Wright County Eggs did not provide details about the number of hens that are vaccinated on that farm. However, a spokeswoman said the company had invested more than $570,000 in the vaccination program since 2009.
U.S. regulators have received criticism since the FDA has not required egg producers to adopt a vaccination program as part of an overall safety plan for their farms. In 2004, the FDA said, "more information on the effectiveness of vaccines needs to be generated before we would mandate vaccination as a preventive measure."
Trampel, the Iowa State professor, said a vaccine was just part of what's needed to ensure food safety at farms.
"No vaccine is 100 percent effective, especially if the environment is severely challenged from a sanitation standpoint," he said. "But a vaccine is one tool, and it's a very important tool."
The new FDA rules do require egg producers to test for salmonella and to better control rodents and other pests, so they could help keep conditions from being bad enough to overwhelm the vaccines' protection.
Ceva Biomune points to the experience in Great Britain as an example of the vaccine's effectiveness. Since 1997, the number of human illnesses from salmonella in England and Wales has dropped 96 percent.
The recall this summer in the U.S. could have a similar effect on egg producers here, according to Trampel and others.
"Whether there's an FDA mandate or not, I think you'll see vaccines become the norm on poultry farms," he said. "No one wants to see their name plastered all over the media.... That's a pretty good incentive right there to vaccinate."