©The Associated Press
To some shoppers, the meaning of the "USDA Grade A" shield on egg cartons seems pretty obvious.
"It means that the rabbi's blessed this as kosher, right?" said Stephen Potter, an early-morning shopper at a Safeway store in Alexandria, Va.
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"It means they've been checked. It's the quality seal. They're safe," suggested Susan Hergenrather, who was cruising the aisles at a Harris Teeter supermarket.
Wrong and wrong. The mark on the carton just means that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had a "grader" at an egg-packing facility who checked the eggs' size and color and made sure the shells weren't cracked, a USDA official said. Consumers "misunderstand" the shield, he said.
Ever since the recent nationwide salmonella outbreak sickened more than 1,000 people and led to the recall of more than a half-billion eggs, USDA officials have stressed that ensuring egg safety isn't their job. That task, they say, belongs to the Food and Drug Administration, which said Wednesday it is getting help from its criminal division and the Justice Department in looking at the farms at the center of the recall.
So what's the point of stamping egg cartons as Grade A? The USDA has two different missions. It does regulate some food safety, especially with meat, but it's also responsible for promoting American food here and abroad. The egg shield comes from the USDA's marketing side.
Egg makers don't have to put a USDA grade on their cartons, and some choose not to. But the USDA shield can help them charge more for their products.
The egg side is different from the meat side at the USDA, where inspection programs are mandatory and the inspectors' job includes looking for sanitation problems. "The USDA mark of inspection is only applied to meat products after inspectors in the plant have confirmed its safety and wholesomeness," said Brian Mabry, a department spokesman. "This is one of our most powerful tools in protecting the public health."
Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa, the producer of 380 million of the recalled eggs, is among those paying the USDA's Agricultural Marketing Service to employ a contract agency "grader" -- not "inspector" -- to check shell eggs for size and color. A company tpically pays the agency $22.70 per hour plus a small additional sum per 30-dozen egg cases graded.
The seal does offer consumers certain assurances. While graders don't look at every egg, they try to ensure that no white eggs slip into a carton of brown eggs, no regular-size eggs are classified as extra large, and none of the eggs are cracked. Grade A eggs are perhaps the most familiar to consumers. Grade B eggs can be slightly stained or misshapen, while Grade AA eggs have the smallest air cell inside the egg.
But the USDA isn't looking for bacteria such as salmonella in the egg or the hen, department officials have said.
Democratic Rep. Rosa DeLauro of Connecticut is one lawmaker who has long maintained that the government should have a single agency devoted to food safety. But that idea has roused opposition from some in the industry who fear creating a new agency would add more bureaucracy.
"The USDA stamp should have a clear and consistent message to consumers -- not a stamp of quality assurance that may be misinterpreted as a stamp of safety," said Ms. DeLauro.
Until new egg-safety rules went into effect in July, the FDA could inspect farms but had little enforcement authority. As a result, FDA officials say, they rarely inspected egg farms except "for cause." After the extra enforcement powers kicked in, and just beofre the salmonella scare made national news, FDA inspectors made it to Wright County Egg and found mice, wild birds, flies and overflowing manure at some of its facilities.
The agency said it now plans to inspect all 600 major egg makers nationwide to ensure that shoppers can be confident eggs on the shelves are safe. The FDA hasn't said whether it will ask for a shield of its own.