There are calls for main U.S. egg producers to be better regulated after revelations of a breach in basic hygiene.

U.S. politicians are coming under pressure to increase regulation of the country's largest egg producers after a federal inspection of two companies at the centre of a salmonella scare revealed breaches of basic hygiene.

Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspections of Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, both in Iowa, found piles of chicken manure up to 2.5 metres high beneath the hens' cages. Employees crushed flies underfoot and live and dead maggots were seen in a manure pit.

At Wright County, pigeons roosted in an air vent and wild birds flew in and out of the chicken house. Mice were observed at both farms, as were chickens which had escaped their cages and were seen moving between manure piles and caged areas.

Largest outbreak

Water used to clean the eggs was tested and found to contain the same salmonella bacteria that has been identified as the cause of the largest outbreak of the disease in the U.S. since records began more than 30 years ago, with 1,500 people infected.

Between them, the two farms have recalled more than half a billion eggs, 380m from Wright County and 170m from Hillandale. The two producers have almost eight million hens.

Food safety experts said the massive scale of the two operations was typical in an industry that has seen production concentrated in fewer and fewer gigantic farms. In 1987, 95 per cent of laying hens were in the hands of 2,500 farms. Today, that figure is accounted for by 192 egg producers.

Iowa has by far the largest presence of those big producers, partly because as the grain basket of America it can provide corn and other feed cheaply and partly because it has among the most lax regulation on egg farmers in the U.S.

The salmonella scandal has also put the spotlight on woefully inadequate federal regulation. The FDA, which is responsible for egg safety, had never inspected either of the Iowa farms before the recent outbreak, despite the fact that Wright County has been at the centre of numerous violations of safety standards.

“The FDA has failed to inspect this company regularly when it's a serial violator of other laws,” said Jaydee Hanson, policy analyst for the Washington-based Centre for Food Safety.

Senators will come under pressure to focus on a food safety bill that has been languishing in Congress. It would dramatically increase the requirement for federal inspections of egg production, and give the FDA the power to order instant recall of eggs, in contrast to the current arrangement by which it has to ask the producers themselves to organise a recall.

In the absence of federal action, some States have begun their own tightening of regulations.

California and Michigan have introduced measures to sell only eggs from non-caged birds. California, where the rules would come into effect by 2015, is such a large egg producer that a shift from factory farming could have an impact across the U.S. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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