An inspection report released Thursday by the US Food and Drug Administration indicates that the North Carolina farm linked to a multistate outbreak of Salmonella from contaminated eggs had an ongoing rodent infestation, unsanitary conditions and poor employee practices.
On April 13, Rose Acre Farms voluntarily recalled nearly 207 million eggs produced at its Hyde County farm in North Carolina that it believed were at risk of contaminated with Salmonella bacteria. Three days later, Cal-Maine Foods Inc. voluntarily recalled 280,800 eggs purchased from the same Rose Acre Farm.
The eggs, which reached consumers in nine states, made at least 23 people sick and caused six hospitalizations, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Laboratory and other evidence identified eggs produced at the North Carolina Rose Acre Farm as the likely source of the multistate salmonella outbreak, the CDC said.
According to the FDA report of inspections of that farm conducted between March 26 and April 11, FDA representatives observed live rodents in feed and production areas. The inspectors also recorded "condensation dripping from the ceiling, pipes, and down walls, onto production equipment." Some of the equipment was "visibly dirty with accumulated grime and food debris."
Additionally, throughout the inspection, several production employees were seen touching their faces, hair or "intergluteal cleft" (the groove between the buttocks) before touching eggs and food contact surfaces without changing their gloves or washing their hands.
One sanitation employee used a steel wool scrubber that had been stored "on a cart in a dustpan that had a pool of water and egg mix with floating food debris and grime" to remove debris from egg buffers.
Rose Acre Farms, which is based in Seymour Indiana, said it is preparing a formal response to the FDA inspection report, which is due April 26. "Until then, we would urge everyone to wait until all the facts are presented before rushing to judgment. Thank you for your understanding and patience," spokesman Gene Grabowski said.
"It's unfair to be judged on the farm's operation without proper perspective or a chance to formally respond to an incomplete representation of a massive facility that houses more than 3 million hens," Grabowski said. "The FDA's form 483 inspection report on our Hyde County, North Carolina farm is based on raw observations and in some cases lack proper context."
At the time of the recall, the government public health agency warned consumers, restaurants and retailers against eating, serving or selling recalled eggs produced by Rose Acre Farms. Recalled eggs were sold in grocery stores and to restaurants under multiple brand names, including Coburn Farms, Country Daybreak, Crystal Farms, Food Lion, Glenview, Great Value, Nelms, Publix, Sunshine Farms and Sunups.
Illnesses started in November and continued through March 22, according to the CDC.
Diarrhea, fever and abdominal cramps are the symptoms of salmonella poisoning, which is usually contracted from contaminated poultry, meat, eggs and water. Signs of illness usually occur within 12 to 72 hours and last for four to seven days in most cases.
People more likely to get a severe salmonella infection include pregnant women, young children, older adults and people with weakened immune systems, such as patients receiving chemotherapy.
Salmonella is usually transmitted when people eat foods contaminated with animal feces that carry the bacteria. Person-to-person transmission can occur if an uninfected person comes into direct contact with another person. An estimated 1.4 million cases occur in the US each year, according to the CDC.
Chickens can pass the bacteria to eggs because the eggs leave hens through the same passageway as feces. Alternatively, bacteria in the hen's ovary or oviduct can get to the egg before the shell forms around it, according to the US Department of Agriculture's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Rose Acre said it does "everything possible to safeguard our flocks and to ensure that we are providing a safe, affordable and abundant supply of eggs to U.S. consumers."