- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2000

We Americans have some very interesting ways of harming ourselves, as detailed in a book titled "Danger Ahead, the Risks You Really Face on Life's Highway."

Each year, windows injure 60,000 people and 70 people die from falling out of them. Ladders and stools injure 200,000 each year. Bathtubs produce up to 150,000 serious injuries per year and close to 100 deaths. Swimming pools and household wiring each claim 300 lives a year. Swing sets injure 167,000 children annually. The odds are 3 in 1,000 that a chair will seriously injure you. Every decade 1 percent of the adult population goes to the emergency room with an accidental scissors stab. The odds are 1 in 7,500 that your TV set will catch fire. So why is the government cracking down on eggs?

The Clinton administration has decided that salmonella in eggs is a problem that justifies an onerous federal program that would put many egg producers out of business. Only 1 egg in 20,000 might contain the Salmonella enteritidis (SE) bacterium that can cause illness if eggs are not properly cooked. If eggs are cooked, the bacterium is rendered harmless. Although none were reported in provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 1999, it is estimated that there are, unfortunately, about 100 deaths per year linked to SE. These almost certainly are from foods prepared in an unsafe manner and not all these contain eggs.

Of course we should strive to eliminate the potential for such occurrences. The egg-producing industry has made tremendous strides in reducing the incidence of SE, which is spread by rodents and other pests. Since 1996, SE incidence has been cut in half due largely to quality assurance programs established voluntarily by egg producers.

Despite this progress, the government wants more red tape and has proposed a half-baked plan that would wipe out many small egg producers. The administration's plan would require producers to pay for environmental testing at their egg farms, looking for the presence of SE in manure and anywhere else where the bacterium could thrive and potentially be consumed by an egg-laying chicken. If SE were detected at the farm and we're not talking about in the eggs themselves, but anywhere in the environment all eggs from the farm would be diverted from the retail market.

This is without scientific merit and would be a serious financial burden to egg producers. Just because SE, which occurs nearly everywhere, is present in the environment does not mean it will show up in eggs. Furthermore, science has not developed a way for farmers to completely rid their operations of SE. So it would be grossly unfair and would cost farmers about $10 million per year. Their financial loss would be even greater, because eggs diverted for pasteurization bring the farmers about 30 percent less than other eggs. The commodity price for eggs already is so low that most, if not all, farmers are losing about 20 cents on each dozen they produce. Small mom and pop farmers especially could not withstand such a financial burden and would almost certainly have to cease operations or sell out. The result would be further consolidation, less competition and higher egg prices for the public.

A little common sense can easily produce a reasonable compromise one in which the medicine is commensurate with the disease. I have offered an amendment that would provide federal funds to defray these testing costs. The government has been paying for salmonella testing in meat and poultry for years, and it is only fair that testing for egg facilities should likewise be government-funded. My proposal also provides a more appropriate action if SE is detected in the egg farm environment. Rather than immediately diverting all of the farm's eggs from the retail market, laboratories would test eggs themselves for the presence of SE. Only if SE were detected in the eggs would the entire production be diverted. If no SE were detected, the farmer could sell his eggs at full value.

This is a precaution much more in line with the remote possibility of SE presence in eggs. The common-sense adjustments in my proposal would encourage continued quality controls, but would not financially punish producers whose facilities test positive for SE, despite their best efforts to prevent it. After all, it is the eggs we eat, not the farm, not the floors or walls on the farm, and not the chicken waste.

The worst thing that could happen from the government's handling of the egg issue would be needless concern on the part of the public. Eggs are safe. Eggs are very safe if cooked properly. Just be careful you don't injure yourself on a chair while eating them.

Jack Kingston is a Republican member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Georgia. He is a member of the Appropriations Committee and the Agriculture Subcommittee.

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