Wright County Egg was hardly a fly-by-night operation. A major egg producer, it was forced to initiate a massive recall in August in 22 states after inspectors linked its feed operations to a salmonella outbreak that sickened 1,600 people, estimates the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unfortunately, the FDA inspection came after the outbreak was already under way. Although egg graders from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) had repeatedly noted subpar conditions in the company's egg-grading operation, those concerns never reached the FDA.
The egg recall illustrates the patchwork, inefficient nature of America's food-safety system. Fifteen federal agencies – and many state agencies – are responsible for food safety. The two primary watchdogs – the FDA and the USDA – have overlapping responsibilities. While the USDA grades the eggs, making sure each carton has the same size egg, the FDA is responsible for keeping them from being contaminated.
Moreover, the two agencies have radically different approaches to securing the food supply. The USDA is inspection-focused. US law requires it to inspect every carcass of meat and poultry that it's responsible for, even though numerous scientific reports have questioned the effectiveness of those rapid conveyor-belt inspections.
"There is an awful lot of money being spent on guys standing around watching the chickens fly by," says Glenn Morris, director of the Emerging Pathogens Institute at the University of Florida, Gainesville, and a former official at the Food Safety and Inspection Service at the USDA. "It's hard to tell what you are getting for your money."