WALLA WALLA -- Health officials continue to scramble to keep up with an outbreak of salmonella in eggs that has sickened hundreds of people across the country, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Today the U.S. Food and Drug officials characterized its action as one of the largest shell egg recalls in recent history.
In the meantime, customers here can't get enough of local eggs, Walla Walla producers say.
The national recall has expanded to include about 380 million eggs from Wright County Egg in Iowa that were distributed in a number of states, including Washington and Oregon.
Officials are expecting the number of cases to grow and evidence is building that the company's production facilities may be at the heart of the problem.
Inspectors have been deployed to help on-site, looking to find the source of the contamination. Investigators are performing environmental assessments of farm conditions and practices including pest and rodent controls, biosecurity plans, environmental monitoring, sanitary controls and feed sources, the FDA said.
Even under the best conditions, however, health officials consider every egg to be contaminated with salmonella, said Harvey Crowder, administrator for Walla Walla County Public Health Department.
"They come from poultry. It's a relatively common experience. It's why we put up so many fences around eggs used in restaurants."
The disease is difficult, if not impossible, to prevent, he added. "It doesn't take a lot of salmonella to make someone sick. It's why we stress fully cooking eggs, hand washing, cleaning and sanitizing food surfaces. Actually, the yolk and white inside the shell is probably not contaminated."
Both cooling and cooking temperatures play a vital role in keeping eggs safe to eat, Crowder noted.
Doug Case agrees. His children own and operate "Chicken Chores Treasures," which is likely the largest home-based egg production in the area.
The business is about five years old and populated with 750 active laying hens. During the heat of summer, production drops to about 3,000 eggs a week, which does not come close to meeting demand, he said.
The Case kids sell eggs to locally owned stores, restaurants and a few farm customers. The operation is inspected yearly or more frequently by the state Department of Agriculture.
Chickens at the Stateline Road farm are allowed to roam outdoors in a pasture situation and are fed a plant-based diet.
Cleaning the eggs and storing them properly are top priority, Case said. The eggs are gathered once a day and stored "as is" in a cooler dedicated for that purpose.
"Then, once a week, we process the eggs. We have a mechanical egg-washing machine that uses brushes and water that has a biodegradable soap that is sprayed in a minute amount. It's heated to around 110 degrees, but because it is on the egg for about three seconds, the egg doesn't go out of temperature," he explained.
After the product is packed in bulk, the family sorts and distributes the eggs into retail cartons by hand. The eggs then go into a "clean" cooler, ready for the distribution route, Case said.
Welcome Table Farms in Walla Walla has a smaller egg operation, but no less sought after, evidenced by the fast sell-out on Saturday market days, said co-owner Emily Dietzman. "People know our eggs are great and hard to get."
She collects and washes by hand the 15 dozen or so eggs her 80 hens produce every week, the refrigerates them. Usually the eggs are consumed one to five days after being laid, the farmer said.
Chickens having access to fresh air and fresh food, along with regular egg collection -- and a systematic, farm-wide emphasis on a healthy environment -- is important in helping keep eggs as safe for eating as possible, Dietzman believes.
Egg-seeking customers at his store are educated on the differences between massive egg-production plants and local producers, Ron Klicker said this morning. Not only do they recognize the difference in taste, they know eggs sold at Klickers are "produced under better conditions."
If he couldn't sell local eggs, he wouldn't sell them at all and his customers feel the same way, the merchant said. "Who knows where that egg in the grocery store came from and when it was laid?"
No matter what eggs people buy, many consumers don't understand how crucial keeping the product at the proper temperature is, Case feels. "They buy it at the store, make a stop or two ... the temperature control between store and home might be a bigger issue than everyone thinks."
As well, those who choose less-than-fully cooked eggs should understand the risk, he said. "If you eat an over-easy egg, you need to accept that responsibility."
Sheila Hagar can be reached at email@example.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.