In the wake of the recent nationwide outbreak of salmonella that sickened 1,000 people and triggered the recall of a half-billion eggs, people have begun wondering just what that “USDA Grade A” badge on the sides of egg cartons actually means.
Remarkably, some believe the badge means a rabbi has blessed the eggs as kosher. Others assume it signifies the eggs are safe to eat; perhaps they even passed a test for pathogenic bacteria like salmonella.
Both suppositions are wrong, it turns out. What the badge actually means is that a “grader” from the US Department of Agriculture has checked the eggs at an egg-packing plant for size and color and assured that their shells were not cracked. That’s it.
Since the salmonella outbreak, officials at the USDA have redoubled their efforts to remind the public that their agency isn’t responsible for assuring the safety of the nation’s egg supply. That responsibility, the officials insist, belongs to the Food and Drug Administration
So what does the USDA do, exactly? Well, it regulates the safety of meats consumed in the US and it promotes US food products here and abroad. That badge on the egg cartons is a product of the second, marketing function of the USDA.
Commenting on the seemingly obvious idea that one government agency should be responsible for food safety, Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro had this to say to the Wall Street Journal: “The USDA stamp should have a clear and consistent message to consumers—not a stamp of quality assurance that may be misinterpreted as a stamp of safety.”
Meanwhile, the FDA and the Justice Department are gathering outside the doors of the egg producers at the center of the recall. The FDA hasn’t decided whether it ought to have a badge of its own, by the way.