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Salmonella found week before recall

Tribune Washington Bureau

An Iowa egg producer involved in the biggest egg recall in U.S. history received a positive test result for Salmonella enteritidis on Aug. 4, more than a week before the Food and Drug Administration confirmed the bacteria's presence and pressed the company to launch the recall, according to records released Tuesday by congressional investigators.

The records also indicate that in the two years leading up to the recall, testing at Wright County Egg found more than 400 positive tests for some strains of salmonella, including 73 samples that were potentially positive for Salmonella enteritidis, the strain responsible for sickening more than 1,500 consumers.

A determination on whether those 73 additional samples were in fact positive for Salmonella enteritidis could not be made immediately because Wright County Egg owner Austin "Jack" DeCoster did not initially produce the test records despite a request and has yet to hand over all documents requested, said a spokeswoman for the House Energy and Commerce Committee. The spokeswoman declined to say how investigators became aware of the samples' existence.

Congressional investigators said that under current law it does not appear that Wright County Egg was obligated to tell the FDA of the test results. And records produced so far do not show whether DeCoster took action in response to the test results. They also do not indicate whether eggs had been contaminated with salmonella long before the recall, and if so, what became of them.

The testing was part of a voluntary internal company program to control pathogens and was conducted for Wright County Egg by the Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Iowa State University.

In a statement, Wright County Egg said that it was "our absolute intention to fully respond" to document requests and that the company's production of records was continuing.

Tuesday's partial record release adds to a disturbing picture of a company unable to meet basic food safety standards.

The FDA has acknowledged that it did not inspect either Wright County Egg, located in Galt, Iowa, or the second firm involved in the recall, Hillandale Farms of Iowa, before the recall. But federal inspections completed after the recall was launched confirmed the presence of Salmonella enteritidis in Wright County Egg facilities and in chicken feed in both operations. Inspections also showed rodents crawling up massive manure piles and flies and maggots "too numerous to count" at Wright County Egg facilities.

The Justice Department and FDA have launched a criminal investigation into the distribution of the contaminated eggs.

DeCoster's failure to produce the testing records was noted in a letter from Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.), who are leading a House inquiry.

"We are concerned … that you did not inform the committee of the potentially positive Salmonella enteritidis test results. We ask that you produce these test results and all other responsive documents," the letter said.

DeCoster and Orland Bethel, who is president of Hillandale Farms, are scheduled to appear before the Energy and Commerce Committee's investigations subcommittee Sept. 21. That hearing is likely to become a platform for lawmakers pushing for approval of a long-delayed food safety bill.

Under FDA pressure, Wright County Egg announced an egg recall Aug. 13. Hillandale Farms followed suit days later. About 550 million eggs have been pulled from the market and more than 1,500 people have been sickened from eating contaminated eggs, according to federal health authorities.

Though the lawmakers' letter to DeCoster refers only to potential additional contamination in the 73 suspect samples, records released Tuesday show two positive tests for Salmonella enteritidis, one on Aug. 6, 2008, and the other confirmed on Aug. 4 of this year. The latter came at least a week before FDA investigators definitively traced the bacteria back to the Wright County Egg operations.

But in an Aug. 26 briefing with reporters, Dr. Jeff Farrar, the FDA's associate commissioner for food protection, said that "by Aug. 11 we did not have any confirmed laboratory tests at the farm."

Even so, the FDA believed by Aug. 11 that the evidence "was clear enough that we obviously wanted to err on the side of protecting public health. We did not have proof positive but yet we initiated, we urged the firm to initiate the voluntary recalls that began at Wright County Egg farm," Farrar said.

An FDA spokesman declined to comment because the recall investigation is ongoing.

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