Revision of state egg rules to balance food safety with egg production economics
A newly proposed rule revision related to eggs that was approved by ag board members last week won't put an end to the handwritten signs at the end of Wisconsin driveways that proclaim "fresh eggs for sale."
Members of the policy board wanted to make sure that that was the case before they approved the first step of the rulemaking process, called a "scope" statement, at their meeting last week.
Steve Ingham, administrator of the Food Safety Division at the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said Wisconsin produces about 1.4 percent of the nation's eggs. While that may seem like a small percentage, it ranks the state 18th and translates to about 1.28 billion eggs (in 2011 data.)
That makes eggs important to the state's economy, he said, but also important to food safety.
According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, there have been 450 outbreaks with 11,000 illnesses linked to eggs since 1990.
"The vast majority of these illnesses have involved Salmonella," he said.
One outbreak in 2010 forced an Iowa egg producer to recall 500 million eggs. "The importance of eggs from and economic and public health viewpoint is why we are proposing revision of ATCP 88 and other chapters related to eggs," he told the ag board.
"We need fair and consistent standards for grading, packaging and labeling to protect Wisconsin's egg producers from substandard competition. We also need well-written regulations to adequately ensure that eggs produced in Wisconsin are safe to eat."
The board agreed to move ahead with the first steps in revision of the state's egg grading, handling and labeling regulations and revision (if necessary) of other rules that may deal with flock health and sanitation at the farm level; grading sanitation and temperature control, packaging and labeling at egg processing facilities; and safe transportation, handling and storage of eggs for retail sale.
Ingham said Secretary Ben Brancel's expectation for these rules is that they should be fair, effective and consistent. "Of course we would also like them to allow growth across the breadth of Wisconsin's egg industry," Ingham added.
One of the challenges in creating the new rules is that different groups view eggs differently, he said.
From a public health viewpoint, eggs are viewed as a potentially hazardous food, Ingham said. Salmonella bacterium can colonize in the ovary of a hen and contaminate the interior of the egg - something that cannot be predicted by looking at the outside of an egg.
From the viewpoint of fair trade, consumers can't tell much about eggs from the outside other than their cleanliness and size.
Ingham and Brancel said DATCP has gotten phone and email inquiries indicating that the agency should revise its rules to clarify licensing and inspection requirements, particularly for egg producers who sell eggs at farmers' markets.
Now, in order to sell eggs at a farmers' market, an egg producer must hold a retail food establishment license required for selling potentially hazardous foods at retail.
"We interpret this regulation to mean that washing and packing of eggs for retail sale must be done in a license food processing plant," Ingham said.
Such egg producers have been required to hold a second license. "This requirement is not clearly stated in statute or administrative rules however, and should be reconsidered," Ingham told ag board members.
Ingham said the proposed rules revisions need to balance the diverse interests related to eggs and create an integrated, effective regulatory frameworks for eggs.
"One very important intent of the proposed revision would be to help businesses by clarifying requirements for licensing and inspection, along with safety and sanitation requirements applying to the collection, cleaning, grading, packaging and distribution of eggs," he said.
The proposed rule would define licensing, facility and temperature-control requirements; remove obsolete provisions in the existing rule; provide explanatory text to improve rule clarity; and modernize requirements to ensure consistency with federal and state egg safety regulations, Ingham said.
As part of the revision process, Ingham said his division would study egg-related regulations in other states as well as federal regulations, to look for potential approaches to balance public safety and fair trade interests while minimizing barriers to entry for small-scale producers.
Ingham said the department plans to continue to exempt licensing for eggs sold on the premises where the eggs are produced in small quantities directly to household consumers and "will evaluate options related to egg producers selling their eggs at farmers' markets."
Brancel told board members that his agency was created out of the need for regulations based on person-to-person transactions. "Every rule we have is because something has happened."
As the population urbanized and people started to get their milk delivered to their door, there was a need for regulations, he said, and the agency was created by the "Hawkers and Peddlers" Act.
"As we go through the process of trying to improve and modernize our rules we have to note that circumstances have changed over time. "There are philosophical questions we are challenged with all the time.
"Do we want to over-regulate? Absolutely not. But these are some of the question we deal with. What I don't want to have happen is make a decision and believe it's right and then afterward when a person gets sick I'll be asked how come I didn't do something to prevent it."
Approval of the scope statement by the board (it has already been approved in the governor's office) is just the first step in a lengthy rulemaking process. The board will have at least two more opportunities to weigh in on the proposed rule.
Before public hearings are scheduled on the rule the department will prepare an economic impact statement and the board must approve a hearing draft.