A North Carolina egg farm that authorities say is responsible for a salmonella outbreak that has sickened several people in nine states has had a heavy rodent infestation and failed to take actions to reverse it, according to an inspection report.
Dozens of rodents, some alive and some dead, were found inside Rose Acre Farms' hen houses in its North Carolina facility. Many, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration report says, were burrowing in manure piles. Countless insects also hovered around chicken feeds and throughout the farm. Employees were seen touching body parts and dirty surfaces while handling food.
Perhaps more disturbing, the report says, is that "unacceptable rodent activity" had been going on at the facility for months - before the first of the salmonella-related illnesses occurred - but the facility's management did not take appropriate actions and unsanitary practices continued. Thirty-five people who consumed eggs traced back to Rose Acre Farms' facility in Hyde County, North Carolina, have been sick since last November, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.
The inspection described in the report was conducted from late March to mid-April, in response to the outbreak of illness.
Last month, Rose Acre Farms, one of the biggest egg producers in the country, recalled nearly 207 million eggs because of fears they have been contaminated with salmonella. In a statement, the family-owned company apologized to those who "may have been sickened" and said it has taken "numerous remedial actions" and other steps "to ensure the farm meets or exceeds" federal standards.
"Rose Acre Farms takes food safety and the welfare of our hens, workers and consumers very seriously. We responsibly follow the requirements of the FDA's Egg Safety Rule, the Food Safety Modernization Act and the Food and Drug and Cosmetic Act because we care about providing safe, nutritious and affordable eggs," the Seymour, Indiana-based company said. "When we fall short of expectations, we're disappointed in ourselves and we strive to correct any problems and institute safeguards that ensure those problems won't occur again. We vow to do better in the future."
The report says that rodent infestation had been a problem at the company's Hyde County farm since at least last September. By late March and early April - after several had already been sick - an inspector visited the facility multiple times and found dozens of rodents running around rows of poultry houses. A few carcasses were found lying in and outside the houses.
Sanitation procedures were also neither implemented nor followed, the report says. Employees were seen touching their faces, hair, buttocks and dirty surfaces - and then handling food without changing gloves or washing their hands. Production equipment were covered in dirt and food debris and were unclean for multiple days during the inspection. One employee was seen cleaning equipment with a steel wool scrubber that had been stored on a cart in a dustpan with a pool of dirty water. Condensation was also seen dripping from ceilings, pipes, walls and onto production equipment.
The "unsanitary conditions and poor employee practices" created an environment that allowed for pathogens that could cause egg contamination to thrive throughout the facility, the report says.
"The worst thing about this is it wasn't like this was news to Rose Acre Farms when the FDA got out there," said Jory Lange, a Houston-based attorney representing a woman who was infected with salmonella. "If Rose Acre Farms had just taken actions last year, there might not have been a salmonella outbreak."
"The problem with rodents in a facility that's making food is that they spread pathogens and pathogens can be deadly," added Lange, who specializes in food-safety litigation. "So whatever it takes to get rid of them, you've got to get rid of them. Otherwise, you're endangering the public."
The Hyde County facility produces 2.3 million eggs a day from 3 million hens. Eggs produced at the farm are distributed to retail stores and restaurants in Colorado, Florida, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia, West Virginia and the Carolinas. Illnesses have been reported in all those states, the majority of which were from New York and Virginia, the CDC said.
Eleven have hospitalized, but no deaths have been reported.
Lange's client, a 70-year-old woman from Florida, has filed a lawsuit against Rose Acre Farms. She experienced vomiting, severe diarrhea and fever shortly after buying eggs from her neighborhood grocery store last March. She was taken to the emergency room on April 2 and was hospitalized for four days. The following week, she was rushed to the hospital again in an ambulance and was hospitalized for another three days, according to the complaint filed Monday in federal district court in Florida.
"She's a cancer survivor and she's been through multiple back surgeries, and this salmonella infection is the worst that she's ever gone through," Lange said. "It got so bad that she wasn't strong enough to lift herself out of bed."
Lange said his client is still weak, but is now recovering.
"Her husband said she's been through so much and this could've killed her. They were really worried," Lange said. "She continues to struggle every day and they never want this to happen to anyone else."
A spokesman for Rose Acre Farms did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit.
This is not the first time the company had problems with rodent infestation. A 2011 FDA inspection found that another facility, in Indiana, also was infested with rodents.
In 1990, three separate outbreaks that sickened about 450 people in three states were traced back to Rose Acre Farms. In response, the federal government prohibited the company from selling products from three Indiana farms where the contaminated eggs originated and required expensive cleanups that threatened to put the company out of business.
Rose Acre Farm sued, setting off a nearly two-decade-long legal battle. A federal judge ruled that the government had overstepped its boundaries and ordered to pay the company $6 million. But a federal appeals court tossed out the judgment, ruling that regulations did not hurt the company's bottom line. After a few more years of back-and-forth appeals, the case was dismissed in 2009.
Aside from recalling eggs, Rose Acre Farms said it is retraining its employees and has created a position called "Corporate Sanitation Manager," the Indianapolis Star reported.
The recalled eggs were sold under brand names as such Great Value, Country Daybreak and Crystal Farms. Recalled eggs have plant numbers of P-1065 and P-1359D, which can be found on egg cartons, and should be discarded, the FDA said.
The company began in Indiana the 1930s with only about 1,000 hens in two poultry houses, according to its website. Its founder, David Rust, later began selling eggs at the Indianapolis Farmer's Market and small grocery stores. Rose Acre Farms expanded throughout the Midwest from the 1960s to the 1980s and in southeastern states in the 2000s. The company now has 17 facilities in eight states.
Salmonella can come from contaminated animal products such as beef, poultry, milk and eggs, as well as fruits and vegetables. It can cause fever, diarrhea, nausea, vomiting and abdominal pain among healthy people, but can lead to fatal infections among children younger than 5, adults older than 65 and those with weak immune systems.
Salmonella causes about 1.2 million illnesses, 23,000 hospitalizations and 450 deaths every year in the United States, according to the CDC. While most recover completely, some people can suffer from long-term effects such as reactive arthritis, which is joint pain and swelling caused by infection.