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Image: JoNel Aleccia
By JoNel Aleccia Health writer
msnbc.com
updated 8/23/2010 3:27:08 PM ET 2010-08-23T19:27:08

Jackie Dearing of Bloomington, Ill., sold all of her 50 dozen eggs at the local farmers market on Saturday, including carton after carton to new customers worried about a large and growing salmonella scare linked to millions of grocery store eggs.

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“Almost everybody who came to our booth mentioned it,” said Dearing, whose family runs Dearing Country Farms, a small-scale meat and poultry business. “Anytime something like this happens, people think a lot more about where their food comes from.”

As a recall of more than 550 million eggs tied to two industrial manufacturers widens , small egg farmers across the United States are echoing Dearing’s experience. Sales of eggs at farmers markets, co-operatives and roadside stands reportedly spiked over the weekend as news of the outbreak linked to at least 1,300 illnesses reached shoppers.

“I think this is the consumer’s way of saying, ‘Until this blows over, I’ll get my eggs from another source,’” said Susan S. Joy, general manager of the Nebraska Poultry Industries, an agency based in Lincoln, Neb., that represents all branches of the turkey and egg industry including both small growers and large farms.

At a farmer’s market in Redmond, Wash., Sue Martinell of Sky Valley Family Farm sold out of 80 dozen chicken eggs on Saturday, leaving only duck eggs to buy.

Customers lined up for eggs at stalls at the Inner Sunset Farmers Market in San Francisco from the time the market opened until they sold out, said Elizabeth Howe, regional manager of the Pacific Coast Farmer’s Market Association.

Story: Any bad eggs in your fridge?

“People are realizing that it’s not the safest decision to buy eggs shipped from huge factory farms in the Midwest, where traceability and accountability is limited,” she said. “At the farmers’ market, you can shake the hand of the farmer who collected your egg that morning and I think that is much more reassuring.”

Across the country, in Arlington, Minn., customers at Bar-5-Meat and Poultry wiped out a supply of 165 dozen eggs by 11 a.m., said owner John Wemeier.

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“Instead of buying one dozen eggs they were buying two dozen to three dozen,” he said. “It looked to me like they were kind of stocking up.”

Poll: Has the egg recall changed your shopping habits?

It’s a trend that could well increase as federal officials struggle to identify the source and scope of the massive recall. U.S. Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Margaret Hamburg on Monday said that it could take weeks or months to complete investigations now centering on two Iowa farms, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. The firms share suppliers of chickens and feed as well as ties to an Iowa business with a history of violations.

Video: Egg producer eyed in recall ‘habitual violator’ (on this page)

In the meantime, mom-and-pop producers could step in, said Karen Blakeslee, a food scientist with the Kansas State University Research and Extension Service.

“This is making consumers more leery of what’s happening with the big manufacturers,” Blakeslee said. “I think the small farmers are really going to pick up business.”

At least one official with the egg industry cautioned consumers to put the issue in perspective. Krista Eberle, director of food safety programs for the Egg Safety Center and the United Egg Producers, said that the recall of 550 million eggs affects only a fraction of the 80 billion eggs produced in the U.S. each year.

“It may seem like a lot of eggs, but it’s actually less than 1 percent,” said Eberle, noting that non-recalled eggs are safe to eat.

That argument might not sit well with shoppers like those who flocked to buy eggs at the Willy Street Co-op in Madison, Wis., said Lyn Olson, director of the store’s cooperative services.

“Over and over I heard, ‘Thank God I already buy organic.’”

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Video: FDA chief: We need additional resources

  1. Closed captioning of: FDA chief: We need additional resources

    >> of the food and drug administration , good morning to you.

    >> good morning.

    >> these numbers are alarming. half a billion with a "b," half a billion eggs being recalled. given the size and the scope of the recall right now do you at the fda feel as if you have your arms around this problem right now?

    >> well, it is the largest egg recall that we've had in recent history. we're continuing to investigate aggressively to determine the exact source of the contamination as we move forward with the recall. we may see some addition al recalls over the next couple days, even weeks, as we better understand the network of distribution of these eggs contaminated. i do want to say that consumers should look on the website foodsafety foodsafety.gov to learn more about the recall and to look specifically at whether eggs that they may have purchased fit into the recall and should be thrown out.

    >> absolutely. let me put some graphics up right now, dr. hamburg. they should be looking for the plant number and we're showing them right here, what that looks like, and we also on our website will put up the specific numbers they have to be looking for. as we look at this, let me ask you, some friends of mine over the weekend said people started getting sick in may. why did it take so long for this recall? we're in august now, the end of august.

    >> well, there is -- you have to start an investigation. first you see the rise in the number of cases of salmonella above the normal background. then you start to identify the cases and do the investigation of where they might have been exposed. this salmonella is the most common kind so it makes it a little bit harder to track down the source. the centers for disease control are our federal partners in food safety have been working very hard with us on this outbreak investigation . we've tried to move swiftly to identify the source and take the action necessary to protect the consumer.

    >> the situation has raised some other questions. i spoke to president obama back in february of 2009 shortly after he took office. it was the time of the big peanut butter recall.

    >> right.

    >> and i asked him at the time if he thought the fda was doing its job. he said, quote, i think the fda has not been able to catch some of these things as quickly as i expect them to catch them and so we're going to be doing a complete review of fda operations. here we are a year and a half later. we have another massive recall. are you in a situation as tom costello suggested in his piece where you're limited in resources and manpower and funding so that you can only react after something goes wrong, that you can't be proactive and get out there and prevent things from going wrong?

    >> well, we very much want to shift the paradigm to a preventive approach. food safety has been a priority of this administration and certainly the fda has been working aggressively to move in this direction. we are hoping that the food safety legislation that was mentioned will be passed by congress.

    >> double the resources, double the funding?

    >> we need additional resources. we need additional authority. we need greater ability to trace back products to their source so that we can identify how the contamination occurred and what products are at risk. we need better abilities and authorities to put in place these preventive controls and hold companies accountable and we need to be able to more routinely review records and work with companies to make sure that the food supply is safe. the food safety legislation adds an additional potential new authority or set of authorities that have to do with imported food. this is a domestic outbreak. more and more food is coming from overseas and we need to aggressively address the safety issues there.

    >> dr. hamburg, i appreciate your time this morning. good luck.

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