The scrambled eggs, as always, were hissing in a skillet on a recent morning at a coffee shop here, in an egg-producing county that has suddenly found itself at the center of the nation’s egg recall over salmonella. But the conversation at the weekly gathering of local ladies turned uncharacteristically tense.
One woman suggested that the company at the focus of the recall of hundreds of millions of eggs, with huge facilities here, had done more harm than good locally. A second resident jumped in to defend the operation and the DeCoster family, which runs it, sternly announcing that any troubles ought not be discussed aloud.
Federal authorities announced Thursday that they had found samples of salmonella matching the strain of the recent outbreak in the feed and barns of Wright County Egg, the DeCosters’ operation.
The authorities said nearly 1,500 illnesses since May might be tied to tainted eggs, making this the largest outbreak associated with this type of bacteria, Salmonella enteritidis, since the federal government began closely tracking foodborne disease in 1973.
The intense scrutiny that the DeCosters and another producer, Hillandale Farms, have come under has reopened a fault line in central Iowa, with its endless fields of corn and soybeans and row after row of identical low-slung buildings full of egg-laying hens: on one side, those who detest enormous industrial-size farms and say the risk of a widespread salm
onella outbreak is one more reason to fear them; on the other, those who see such farming as the economic savior of these wide open spaces.
The DeCosters produce 2.3 million dozen eggs a week in Iowa. Over the years, many here have objected to the growing operations of Austin J. DeCoster. Neighbors sued the DeCosters’ farms for what they said were noxious gases, millions of gallons of uncovered manure and putrid animal carcasses left on roadways.
The Iowa Department of Natural Resources declared Mr. DeCoster a “habitual violator,” making his the only operation ever to be deemed such in Iowa, for its handling of hog waste. And Mr. DeCoster paid more than $1.5 million as part of a settlement with 11 female workers, most of them Mexican, at his egg facilities over sexual harassment and assault charges, including rapes by supervisors.
But this is also a place where the DeCosters’ operations have, in two decades, become braided into life. An annual “Appreciation Supper” by the DeCosters at the local park means free food for everyone. A local restaurant owner said he was paid to provide tacos and quesadillas for workers at the facilities. Local farmers said they were ensured a decent price for corn that went to feed the DeCosters’ poultry. And the DeCosters, defenders here say, have given money for the local hospital, the library fund, the concession stand at the football stadium, and on and on.
“It’s all hush-hush now — like everybody’s supposed to be positive because they got stuff,” said Bill Drury, a farmer, who groaned that even his local banker kept an egg figurine on his desk, a gift from the DeCosters. “I get blacklisted all over the place for saying it, but DeCoster goes to the lowest degree of compliance for everything. That’s the problem. He’s a bad actor.”
Mr. DeCoster, who is known as Jack and is in his 70s, and his son, Peter, who many here say now largely oversees the Iowa operation, declined through a spokeswoman to be interviewed for this article. The spokeswoman, Hinda Mitchell, also declined to answer questions about earlier environmental and labor complaints against the DeCoster operation or about the DeCosters themselves. Of this Iowa region’s relations with the DeCosters, Ms. Mitchell said, “The farms have been longtime, active members of our local community.”
The precise cause of the salmonella infections has not been pinpointed, but Thursday’s revelations by federal authorities suggested they were moving closer.
Sherri McGarry, a Food and Drug Administration official, said salmonella was found in feed given to young birds, known as pullets, that were raised by a DeCoster facility for use at both its own farms and at Hillandale Farms. The bacteria was also found in bone meal, an ingredient used by the DeCoster operation to make its feed. In a statement, Wright County Egg suggested the contaminated ingredients could have come from a supplier.
The DeCosters have five large egg-laying facilities and eight sites for pullets.
Federal officials said the discovery was significant but that it did not mean that the contamination of the eggs — which occurs when they form inside infected hens — began with bad feed. Instead the salmonella could have been spread to the feed by rodents, workers or in other ways.
Mr. DeCoster came here from Turner, Me., a tiny town where he began with a paltry 125 hens and built an empire — crossing some people along the way. Robert B. Reich, then the labor secretary, once publicly denounced the DeCoster Egg Farms in Maine as an “agricultural sweatshop” where the workers were treated like “animals.”
But Larry Olson, who was a Wright County, Iowa, supervisor for 32 years, said he believed that the DeCosters had improved their practices in recent years. State environmental officials noted that Mr. DeCoster’s “habitual violator” status had expired, and that the Department of Natural Resources had not cited it for serious infractions in years.
“When Jack came, he wasn’t a good neighbor, but that’s changed,” said Mr. Olson, who added that he had “caught a lot of hell” as a supervisor when he first pressed to allow the farming business in about two decades ago. “He’s brought jobs and increased the tax base, and if you look, where other counties have been hurting, we haven’t as much,” Mr. Olson said.
Change here has been jarring for some. While farmers here could still recall the small egg operations of their parents and grandparents (a henhouse with 500 chickens once seemed like a lot), Iowa’s large-scale egg production was booming. The state is the largest egg producer now, by far. Fifteen billion eggs are expected to come from Iowa this year from 60 million hens.
“People see this as economic development, but look at the social implications of this, look at the environment,” said Jim Yungclas, who is 75 and a Wright County farmer. As he drove past two enormous egg facilities still under construction amid farm fields, he shook his head. “They’re building these things on top of someone’s garden,” he said. “They could build these things somewhere where the land isn’t so valuable.”
Drive down the roads here, and Wright County Egg facilities pop up out of nowhere — long, squat celery-colored buildings in perfect rows. Inside, workers said, cages of chickens are stacked high and eggs plop forth onto a conveyor belt, which leads to a production building, where the eggs are washed, sanitized, surveyed, then fed into cartons.
Watching news of the egg recall on Spanish-language television inside the Mexican restaurant here, workers refused to discuss their jobs — fearful, they said, that they might be fired. One former worker defended the facilities, which over the years have been the target of several raids by immigration officials. He said they were clean, safe and included devices meant to ward off rodents. “People don’t even touch the eggs,” he said, before insisting that he, too, not be identified. “You have to understand, this is a small town.”
William Neuman contributed reporting from New York.