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Egg Producer Says His Business Grew Too Quickly

Gardiner Harris|The New York Times
Thursday, 23 Sep 2010 | 10:25 AM ET

An Iowa egg producer at the center of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella apologized to a Congressional panel on Wednesday and acknowledged that his family operation had become “big quite awhile before we stopped acting like we were small.”

“What I mean by that is, we were big before we started adopting sophisticated procedures to be sure we met all of the government requirements,” the egg producer, Austin J. DeCoster, said in testimony before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee. He is the founder of an egg empire that has been linked over three decades to outbreaks of salmonella poisoning in many states, some leading to deaths.

Austin "Jack" DeCoster (right) appears in district court in Lewiston, Maine.
Photo: Lewiston Sun Journal
Austin "Jack" DeCoster (right) appears in district court in Lewiston, Maine.

“We were horrified to learn that our eggs may have made people sick,” Mr. DeCoster, who is known as Jack, said in a shaky voice. “We apologize to everyone who may have been sickened by eating our eggs.”

His company, Wright County Egg, based in Iowa, and another company, Hillandale Farms, recalled more than 500 million eggs last month after health officials traced salmonella bacteria that sickened more than 1,500 people to those companies.

A subsequent inspection by the Food and Drug Administration found that the barns of the egg producers were infested with flies, maggots and rodents, and had overflowing manure pits. Records unearthed by Congressional investigators showed that tests of Wright County Egg barns had shown the presence of toxic salmonella bacteria for years before the outbreak.

Despite such conditions, Peter DeCoster, Austin DeCoster’s son and the chief operating officer of Wright County Egg, told the panel that the most likely source of the contamination was a separate company that supplied ingredients for chicken feed, a contention disputed by federal food officials. He said that some of the filthy conditions documented by the F.D.A. were standard practice in the industry.

Documents released by the committee showed that Wright County Egg achieved a “superior” rating and “recognition of achievement” from AIB International, a private inspection company based in Manhattan, Kan., after a June inspection of its processing facility. That came just as the company was causing thousands of illnesses from contaminated eggs.

In 2008, AIB gave a “superior” rating to a Peanut Corporation of America plant in Blakely, Ga., that was later found to be riddled with salmonella that caused a nationwide outbreak and the largest food recall in American history. A spokesman for AIB could not be reached.

"“This is a public health imperative.”" -, Representative Edward J. Markey

Orland Bethel, the president of Hillandale Farms of Iowa and a longtime associate of the DeCosters, cited his Fifth Amendment rights and declined to testify. But in an Aug. 31 e-mail released by the subcommittee, Mr. Bethel wrote, “Hillandale needs to totally disassociate itself from Jack and it needs to be real. Hillandale has a good business base, but it will all be gone if I don’t move quickly and I will not try to deceive the public.”

In another e-mail, Mr. Bethel wrote that his company had been told by Costco and Wal-Mart “that they will not be doing any business if Jack and his people have any involvement in management or ownership.”

Duane Mangskau, a Hillandale production manager, told the committee that Hillandale had ended its marketing relationship with Wright County Egg.

Representative Bruce Braley, a Democrat of Iowa, asked Austin DeCoster, “How is it possible that after all this time we have another DeCoster egg facility involved in a half-billion egg recall?”

Mr. DeCoster responded, “The question is complicated, sir.”

Pictures taken at the DeCoster facilities of barns bursting with manure, manure flowing under barn doors, and barns with dead rodents, chickens and flies were shown at the hearing. Members of the panel expressed outrage that inspectors found such conditions even though the DeCosters were alerted days before inspectors appeared that the company’s eggs had been contaminated.

“DeCoster farms have had warning after warning” for decades, said Representative Henry A. Waxman, a California Democrat. “Yet they continue to raise chickens in slovenly conditions and to make millions of dollars by selling contaminated eggs.”

The hearing was briefly interrupted by two animal welfare advocates who unfurled an anti-egg banner and repeatedly chanted: “All eggs kill!” Police officers escorted them from the room.

Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the F.D.A.’s principal deputy commissioner, told the panel that the F.D.A. needed new powers and money to help prevent further food contamination outbreaks, both of which are provided for in legislation that the House passed last year but that has been languishing in the Senate. “We need this bill to help protect the safety of the food supply,” he said.

Democratic members of the panel denounced Senator Tom Coburn, a Republican from Oklahoma, who has objected to a Democratic plan to bring food safety legislation to a vote.

“This is a public health imperative,” said Representative Edward J. Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts. “There must be some exceptions for Republicans in the Senate. They must release this bill so that we can protect millions of families.”

But Representative Michael C. Burgess, Republican of Texas, said that Mr. Coburn’s objections had not prevented the bill from being considered by the Senate. Mr. Burgess sought to read a statement from Mr. Coburn at the hearing, but Representative Bart Stupak, the chairman of the panel, cut off his microphone, which led to a sharp exchange between the lawmakers.

“I voted with you on the dang bill. I’ve worked with you on the dang bill,” Mr. Burgess said. “It is preposterous that the majority has conducted the hearing this way when he’s not the problem.”

And then, referring to Mr. Coburn, Mr. Burgess added, “He may become a problem if the majority leader brings it to the floor,” a remark that elicited laughter from the room.

Hours after the hearing, Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada and the Senate majority leader, asked on the Senate floor for the unanimous consent for the body to consider the bill.

“There is no excuse to wait any longer,” he said. “Our current food safety system hasn’t been updated in almost a century.” But Mr. Coburn objected. To overcome Mr. Coburn’s objections, Mr. Reid would have to file for cloture, a process that can take a week or more; the Senate has other legislation it must pass before members adjourn to campaign in October.

“On a piece of legislation that is this bipartisan, this should be something we can do rather quickly,” said Regan Lachapelle, a spokeswoman for Mr. Reid. “Unfortunately, one senator is saying no.”

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