WASHINGTON (AP) – The Food and Drug Administration on Monday recommended changes aimed at reducing by one-third the salmonella infections caused each year by tainted eggs.

The agency estimates that 118,000 people each year are sickened by eating improperly cooked eggs contaminated with salmonella. Illnesses range from mild stomach upset and arthritis to death.

By bolstering safety at farms with more than 3,000 laying hens that do not already pasteurize their eggs, the agency hopes to trim illness rates by 33,500 per year.

That expected reduction in illness rates represents “a major step” in realizing the agency’s goal of a 50 percent reduction in such infection outbreaks by 2010, FDA Acting Commissioner Dr. Lester M. Crawford said in a statement.

The changes, if adopted, would cost an estimated 4,100 affected farms about $82 million per year. Depending on farm size, producers could pay from as little as 19 cents to as much as $1 in increased costs per laying hen. Because safer food would reduce hospitalizations, however, the measure could provide $490 million in savings, the agency estimates.

The proposed safety measures are both sweeping, such as creating biosecurity programs, and common sense, like ensuring eggs stored at the farm are refrigerated and pests controlled.

Farms and egg producers will now have to create biosecurity programs that limit access to poultry houses and require visitors to shower in both directions and dispose of potentially tainted outer clothing. A positive salmonella test result would prompt disinfection of the poultry house and prevent those eggs from reaching the market.

The nation’s egg producers, waiting since the Clinton administration for the FDA to take action on the matter, say they already have made many voluntary safety improvements to reduce salmonella risk.

And, of late, safety precautions again were bolstered to address state veterinarians’ qualms about bird flu risk, said Chad Gregory, director of membership at United Egg Producers. The organization represents 220 businesses that produce 90 percent of chicken eggs consumed by Americans.

Gregory said the group has not yet reviewed the FDA’s guidance in detail but supports it.

Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the key will be speedy action on the proposal and effective enforcement by the FDA. The Washington, DC-based nonprofit in 1997 petitioned the FDA for tougher, on-farm controls after a successful pilot program dramatically slashed salmonella infection rates in Pennsylvania.

“With these types of control, they could virtually eliminate the hazards in eggs,” Smith DeWaal said. “If you eliminate it in the chickens that are laying the eggs, you can eliminate it as a food safety problem altogether.”

People can be infected with salmonella by eating raw or partially cooked food that is tainted, including Roma tomatoes and cantaloupes imported from Mexico. Eggs can be contaminated inside the shell by passing through an infected laying hen’s reproductive tract.

The agency is accepting public comments on its proposed rule through Dec. 21, though a final decision could take years.

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