WASHINGTON – With just 2.5 inspectors, the Maryland Department of Agriculture manages to pass judgment on just one in 200 of the almost 860 million eggs sold in the state every year.
“It is bad. I wish we could look at a lot more of them,” said Deanna L. Baldwin, the administrator of the inspection program.
But of those eggs that they do see, the inspectors turn up enough problems to reject about 20 percent.
“We’re not catching everything that is bad,” Baldwin concedes. “But without us out there, they (eggs) would continue to get worse because they (egg processors) would know no one is watching them.”
The number of egg inspectors in Maryland puts it about in the middle of the pack when compared to other states, Baldwin said. Pennsylvania has more inspectors, while New Jersey has none.
More than 8,000 grocery stores, restaurants and convenience marts in the state sold a total of about 859.8 million eggs in 2001, enough eggs to easily form a fragile pearl necklace around the Earth’s equator if laid end to end.
To examine them, each inspector is assigned to a section of the state. The inspectors’ goal is to hit every store and restaurant in the state at least once a year, but they simply do not have the manpower to do that.
The job is decidedly low-tech. After identifying themselves, they check the temperature of the cooler where the eggs are stored. Then they grab several dozen eggs, checking to make sure the cartons are properly labeled for size and refrigeration, among other things.
The inspectors then begin to inspect the eggs themselves, holding them up to a special “candling” lamp that reveals any cracks in the shell and lets the inspector see the yolk and air cell inside, to determine freshness. They also look for dirty eggs, flecked with mud or chicken droppings.
“We have more problems with cracks than anything else because the shell is so fragile,” said Ronald R. Rogers, a veteran inspector.
These cracks, which are invisible to the naked eye, allow bacteria to enter the egg more rapidly and cause the egg to lose its freshness faster.
Not all of the eggs the inspectors flag are life-threatening. Many of these problems are administrative, having to do with invoices or labeling. Almost half of the failures are the result of improper labeling, such as not having a reminder to refrigerate on the box.
But about 38 percent of the citations issued by inspectors are for deficiencies in quality, including cracks, shells spotted with chicken feces, blood in the white of the egg or the product being rotten.
Once an inspector finds enough bad eggs, the whole batch is ordered off the shelf. That extends the inspectors’ reach — they can pass judgment on 4 million or 5 million eggs a year, even though they may actually have touched only a fraction of that number.
“We could do a much better job if we had more people,” Baldwin said.
The department had more inspectors in the past: The state employed eight inspectors in 1991, when Baldwin said the egg failure rate was five times lower than the 20 percent in 2001.
But 1992, like 2003, was a tough year fiscally and numerous state programs suffered budget cuts. The Egg Inspection Program lost all state funding, except for a tax that works out to $1 for every 375 dozen eggs sold, Baldwin said.
She defends the value of the program, however, pointing to a series of salmonella outbreaks in the 1980s. Eggs can carry salmonella, a bacteria that can cause food poisoning and, in rare cases, death.
“When we started restricting the sale of dirties (eggs), the outbreaks of salmonella went down,” Baldwin said.
Similar improvements followed requirements that stores refrigerate eggs and the strict enforcement of other egg laws.
“When we do things, you see the outbreaks go down,” Baldwin said.
Because of their numbers, Rogers said any given commercial outlet in the state may go longer than a year without a visit. That can lead to situations like the one he faced recently in a McDonalds, where Rogers had to explain to the manager who he was and what he had legal authority to do.
But most retailers are cooperative, he said.
“As long as we have some control and they know we have some people out there looking over their shoulder, we’re going to have a better product,” he said of his egg inspections.
“It’s that way with everything. If there were no police officers out here, what would you have?”