Editor's note: The following editorial appeared Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times.
How did bacteria spread through two Iowa egg farms, leading to the largest Salmonella enteritidis outbreak ever recorded in the United States? Take your pick. Stomach-turning inspection reports released Monday by the Food and Drug Administration found wild birds, which can carry the disease, flying and nesting near caged chickens and a feed mill. They found workers who didn't wear protective clothing, and chicken manure piled so high that it bulged through barn doors.
A better question would be, who's guarding the henhouse? Not government regulators. FDA officials claim new egg safety rules that went into effect in July could have prevented the outbreak, but that's true only if big egg producers actually obeyed them. Austin "Jack" DeCoster, the owner of Wright County Egg in Iowa, has allegedly been flouting federal environmental and workplace rules for decades with little consequence; his company has recalled 380 million eggs following the salmonella outbreak.
A bill to give regulators more authority probably would have died quietly in the Senate if not for the crisis, which has focused public attention on food security lapses. The Food Safety Modernization Act, already approved by the House, would give regulators the power to order mandatory recalls of tainted foods and suspend the registration of food facilities. Crossing the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a Senate filibuster on this bill won't be easy considering the extraordinary power of Big Agriculture, but the failure of the current system shows reform is needed.
Meanwhile, a simple and inexpensive way of preventing salmonella exposure is being neglected: vaccines for chickens.