ORONO, Maine – Mainers sitting down to the breakfast table this morning shouldn’t worry about the safety of their eggs, say state officials who credit the state’s rigorous testing system with providing an effective defense against the Salmonella bacterium that prompted the largest recall of table eggs in American history last month.

“Our eggs are safe,” said state veterinarian Don Hoenig in a telephone interview earlier this week. “They are among the most inspected and tested eggs in the country. I would put them up against eggs from any other region.”

Maine has a long history of testing large-scale egg farms for the presence of Salmonella enteritidis, the bacterium identified in eggs from two Iowa facilities that last month caused more than 1,500 people to fall ill in several Midwestern states.

Other than regulations affecting the handling of manure and the siting of barns, Iowa has exercised little state-level oversight of the egg industry, a spokesman for that state’s Department of Agriculture said on Friday.

By contrast, Maine’s Salmonella enteritidis testing and inspection program was implemented in 1988, far in advance of the federal Food and Drug Administration regulations that took effect in July.

Maine’s Salmonella enteritidis Risk Reduction Program, developed in response to an outbreak of human illness in New York and New England in 1987, is stricter than the federal rule, said Hoenig, who works for the state Department of Agriculture.

“Maine’s program is far more stringent than the new FDA rule and has been from the beginning,” Hoenig said. For one thing, the state requires all laying hens to be vaccinated — twice — against Salmonella enteritidis, or SE, whereas the federal program does not.

Hoenig was speaking via cell phone from one of several sprawling egg farms in Turner owned by egg mogul Austin “Jack” DeCoster. DeCoster owns one of the Iowa facilities implicated in the recent salmonella outbreak and has production and supply links to the other.

DeCoster also has connections to the other two large egg farms in Maine: Dorothy Egg Farms in Winthrop and Mountain Hollow Egg Farms in Leeds. Between them, these three facilities house approximately four million laying hens at any given time and produce an estimated 100 million cartons of eggs each year, worth between $60 and $80 million dollars. The eggs are marketed to grocery chains throughout New England.

DeCoster’s facilities in Maine have in the past been cited for workplace safety violations and animal cruelty. Hoenig was quick to say he was not defending the serious infractions at DeCoster’s operations here. But the state’s early recognition of the salmonella problem, he said, has led to an egg safety program that is second to none.

Tough standards

Maine requires laying houses to be thoroughly cleaned and tested for Salmonella enteritidis between flocks, minimizing the likelihood that the organism could be passed from one flock to another or that contaminated eggs could get out into the retail “table-egg” market. The program also calls for a more rigorous process of rodent control than the federal rule does.

Salmonella enteritidis continues to be found in routine environmental testing of chicken feces at Maine farms — including as recently as last year — but the incidence is far lower than it was in the 1980s. Since the program started, Maine’s large farms never have been implicated in an outbreak of human salmonella, and Salmonella enteritidis has never been identified inside a Maine egg despite random laboratory testing at the University of Maine.

Nonetheless, UM’s Animal Health Laboratory stands ready to comply with a dramatic new federal egg-testing requirement the next time environmental Salmonella enteritidis is identified at one of Maine’s big egg farms.

The new federal regulations and the long-standing state regulations apply to any farm with 50,000 laying hens or more. In Maine, that includes only the big-barn operations in Turner, Winthrop and Leeds.

In 2012, the federal regulations will be extended to farms with production flocks of more than 3,000 but fewer than 50,000 birds. There is only one Maine farm that fits in that smaller category, Hoenig said — Bowden’s Egg Farm in Waldoboro, which has about 12,000 birds and delivers eggs to convenience stores and other small outlets in the midcoast area. Bowden’s is currently unregulated, but no problems with salmonella or other problems have been associated with the family-owned farm, according to Hoenig.

Protecting human health

Hoenig also reminds worried Maine consumers that cooking eggs thoroughly will kill the salmonella bacterium. And Hoenig, who keeps a backyard flock of about 10 laying hens, also said that buying eggs from small local farms remains a safe alternative.

Maine began regulating egg farms in 1988 after public health inspectors tied the outbreak of human salmonella cases in New York and New England to eggs from Maine farms. Testing performed at the time confirmed the widespread presence of Salmonella enteritidis in several of the large egg houses here.

Spurred by New York state’s decision to embargo Maine eggs until producers signed on to an Salmonella enteritidis eradication plan, the state acted to protect the health of the egg-eating public as well as the health of the egg industry.

The state regulations have evolved over time and currently share some major components with the new federal rule. Both require environmental testing of chicks that are raised for egg production before they are shipped to laying houses. Environmental testing includes gathering samples of feces and other materials from surfaces in the birds’ environment.

Most chicks shipped to Maine farms are raised in Ohio. Maine regulations require chicks to be individually vaccinated against Salmonella enteritidis when they are 10 to 12 weeks old and again the day they are loaded on trucks headed for Maine. A random sample of birds are tested on arrival in Maine and before being loaded into the barns to see if the vaccine has “taken” effectively. The federal rule includes no vaccine requirement.

Up until July, chicken farms were required to submit environmental samples to the Animal Health Laboratory at the University of Maine in Orono as each flock neared the end of its productive life, about 70 weeks. A positive test would trigger a random sampling of egg testing from the flock. No eggs have ever been found to contain Salmonella enteritidis, according to Hoenig.

Under the new FDA rules, however, environmental testing is done earlier in the life of the flock. A positive environmental Salmonella enteritidis test triggers a series of interventions, including the mandatory testing of 1,000 eggs from the affected barn. The remaining eggs from the flock must be held at the farm during the mandated 10-day testing period and released for retail sale only if the tested eggs are negative for Salmonella enteritidis. The 1,000-egg test must be repeated three more times at two-week intervals.

That’s 4,000 eggs in eight weeks.

Veterinarian Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the Animal Health Laboratory, said the lab staff has conducted a trial run to be sure it has a workable system for meeting the federal testing requirement. The facility also has beefed up its supplies of incubator tubes, culture plates and other paraphernalia needed to process the eggs.

“It’s a complicated process with multiple steps,” she said. “If we can get all hands on deck by the end of day one, we can quite easily be on track to finish the process in ten days as demanded by the FDA rule.”

Hoenig says he knows it’s just a matter of time before the UMaine lab jumps into action.

“We haven’t had a positive [egg barn] since October 2009,” he said. “I’m just holding my breath.”

Meg Haskell

Meg Haskell is a curious second-career journalist with two grown sons, a background in health care and a penchant for new experiences. She lives in Stockton Springs. Email her at mhaskell@bangordailynews.com.