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Avian Flu Threatens Food Industry’s Egg Supply

May 27, 2015

By: Jennifer McEntire, PhD- Vice President of Science Operation

A few weeks ago a reporter asked me to comment on the avian influenza outbreak and I responded that it was not my area of expertise. I was aware of the outbreak, but hadn’t been following it that closely. My, what a difference a few weeks makes!

Over the last week the ripple effect of the epidemic has become abundantly clear to us: our members who use processed eggs, in pasta, bakery products, dressings—all sorts of food products—are concerned that egg supplies are going to become very short. Recent reports indicate that more than 30 million birds have been culled in an attempt to control the spread of the disease. When we look at how eggs are used, more than half go to the grocery store, usually sold by the dozen. Nearly a third are pasteurized (to kill bacteria that could cause human illness) and are then used in processed food products. At this stage it’s estimated that about 25% of the eggs that go toward processing have been impacted. The effect of the disease is immediate, and severe.

Explaining the regulatory oversight of eggs: between the laying hens, eggs in the shell, eggs once they are broken, eggs when they are used as ingredients in processed foods—could be the subject of a graduate thesis. The bottom line is that this issue will reveal the extent to which FDA and USDA (several parts of it: FSIS, APHIS, and AMS) are truly able to work together in an expeditious, cooperative manner to address a growing issue.

What can be done? There are a few options that probably need to be simultaneously pursued (by different regulatory agencies). At the end of the day, we need to increase the availability of eggs. That includes looking for efficiencies to use eggs that may currently be wasted, as well as looking for alternate sources of eggs.

Of course, at the same time, it’s critical to control the disease. There are varying opinions on the effectiveness of vaccines and the trade repercussions the use of vaccines might have. There is hope that the warmer weather will kill the virus. In the meantime, it will take many months for the locations that have already been affected to be back up and running.

Hopefully, a multi-pronged approach by the numerous regulators, governments, industry members, and other stakeholders, will be successful in addressing this issue to avoid consumer impacts. Let’s view this as an opportunity to work collectively.



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