WASHINGTON (AP) — Food and Drug Administration investigators have found rodents, seeping manure and even maggots at the Iowa egg farms believed to be responsible for as many as 1,500 cases of salmonella poisoning.
FDA officials released their initial observations of the investigations at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms on Monday. The two farms recalled more than half a billion eggs after salmonella illnesses were linked to their products earlier this month.
The reports released by the FDA show many different possible sources of contamination at both farms, including rodent, bug and wild bird infestation, uncontained manure, holes in walls and other problems that could have caused the outbreak. Positive samples of salmonella linked to the outbreak have been found at both farms.
Officials said they still cannot speculate on how the eggs were contaminated. But they said the farms not only violated their own standards but also new egg rules put in place this summer.
Among the observations of the investigators:
— Live rodents and mice in laying houses at both farms;
— Structural damage and holes in many locations at both farms, allowing wildlife access;
— Escaped chickens tracking manure through the houses;
— Employees not changing clothing properly when moving from one location to another and not sanitizing equipment properly;
— "Live flies too numerous to count" on egg belts, in the feed, on the eggs themselves at Wright County Egg;
— Dead and live maggots "too numerous to count" on the manure pit floor in one location at Wright County Egg;
— Manure piled four to eight feet high in five locations at Wright County Egg, leaning against and pushing open doors that allowed wildlife to enter the laying houses;
— Nonchicken feathers in a laying house and wild birds flying in and out of two facilities at Wright County Egg;
— Manure seeping through the foundation to the outside of laying houses in 13 locations at Wright County Egg;
— Rusted holes in feed bins and birds flying over the feed bins at Wright County Egg;
In a statement, unidentified officials of Wright County Egg said they are working "around the clock" to address FDA's concerns and some have already been fixed.
"To date, the vast majority of the concerns identified in the FDA report already have been addressed through repairs or other corrective measures," the company said in the statement. "We anticipate the expeditious completion of nearly all remaining items by mid-September."
Hillandale Farms released a similar statement, saying some of the issues had already been identified by the company.
Animal feces and access to wildlife are normally the main concern of investigators looking for causes of an outbreak, as illnesses such as salmonella originate from feces. Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods, said in a briefing for reporters Monday that the agency cannot say how these conditions compare to other egg farms around the country but he believes they are "significant deviations from what is expected."
The agency has not traditionally inspected egg farms until there has been a problem. The FDA has said it has not inspected either of the two Iowa farms, even though the owners of Wright County Egg have a long history of health, safety, environmental and immigration violations.
The FDA will now inspect all of the nation's largest farms by the end of next year, the Obama administration announced last week.
No deaths have been reported due to the outbreak, but the number of illnesses, which can be life-threatening, especially to those with weakened immune systems, is expected to increase.
The CDC has said this is the largest outbreak of this strain of salmonella since the start of the agency's surveillance of outbreaks in the late 1970s. For every case reported, there may be 30 that are unreported.
Thoroughly cooking eggs can kill the bacteria. But health officials are recommending people throw away or return the recalled eggs.