By TIMOTHY W. MARTIN
Food retailers and manufacturers are rushing to tell consumers that their products are safe amid a nationwide recall of 380 million eggs that may be infected with salmonella bacteria.
The Food and Drug Administration on Thursday said it hadn't yet found clear evidence of contamination, although heavy rainfall near the Iowa company that produced the eggs may have raised the risk of salmonella infestation from rodents.
Wright County Egg Co. of Galt, Iowa, on Wednesday expanded the recall from 228 million eggs recalled last week. The company is owned by Jack DeCoster, whose companies in the past have been fined by federal regulators for allegedly hiring illegal immigrants and for other alleged workplace violations.
A company spokeswoman said Mr. DeCoster wasn't available for an interview. She declined to comment beyond a statement saying that the recall was a voluntary measure and that the company continued to fully cooperate with the FDA.
The recalled eggs could be linked with hundreds of illnesses in at least 10 states, and probably many more, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Those numbers could grow as more data become available, U.S. health officials said.
The recall poses a threat to the wider egg-producing industry, thanks to confusion that can arise in the wake of recalls. In recent years, high-profile recalls for spinach and peanuts have led to temporary sales declines.
"Consumers don't take the time to look at the FDA Web page to see which suppliers are affected,They'd rather say, 'Man, I'm not going to consume eggs for the next month,' " said Mark Jarvis, CEO of Steritech Group Inc., which audits companies seeking food-safety and quality certification.
The eggs suspected in the salmonella outbreak were packed starting in May. While new FDA egg safety rules went into effect July 9, it is difficult to say for sure that they could have prevented the outbreak, said FDA Associate Commissioner Jeff Farrar. If all new egg safety rules had been in place earlier, "it might have reduced the risk," he said.
Hens can be infected with salmonella and pass it to their eggs in a variety of ways, but frequently the bacteria come from rodents that leave fecal droppings in feed troughs and silos. Unusually heavy rains in the Galt area may have sent mice and rats seeking shelter in chicken houses and feed bins, said AccuWeather.com, a meteorological service.
Salmonella is destroyed by heat. Eggs should be cooked at 145 degrees Fahrenheit for at least 15 seconds, says the Egg Safety Center, an industry group. Investigators believe many of the reported cases of illness stemmed from people eating raw eggs used in salad dressings or meringue at restaurants.
All egg products, such as liquid, frozen and dried eggs, are required by law to be pasteurized. Many restaurant chains use these products rather than raw eggs. Wendy's/Arby's Group Inc. and Domino's Pizza Inc., for example, said they used only pasteurized egg products and wouldn't have any recalled eggs in their food.
Grocers started pulling eggs from shelves last weekend. Kroger Co., whose Ralphs division in California was affected, said it alerted customers who had purchased the specific brand of eggs by phone. Albertsons stores in southern California, which are owned by Supervalu Inc., said signs about the recall were posted on store shelves.
—Julie Jargon and Alicia Mundy contributed to this article.
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