Egg recall: DeCoster-linked farm releases contaminated eggs. Again.

Egg recall this past week involves megafarmer Jack DeCoster, whose farm was part of this summer's huge 550 million egg recall.

Amber Waterman / Sun Journal / AP / File
In this June 6 file photo, Austin 'Jack' DeCoster (right) appears in a Lewiston, Maine, court with attorney Timothy O'Brien, charged with 10 counts of animal cruelty. His company pleaded guilty and agreed to pay nearly $135,000 in fines. The latest egg recall involves an Ohio farm in which Mr. DeCoster was the largest investor.

What does it take to get kicked out of the egg industry?

Nearly 300,000 eggs are being recalled contaminated with the same disease – and coming from a company linked to the same two men – as in this summer's huge 550 million egg recall.

Egg seller Cal-Maine, Inc. announced Nov. 5 that it was recalling “approximately 24,000 dozen” eggs that it had processed and repackaged between Oct. 9 and 12. The company issued the recall after the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) informed it that a study sample had tested positive for salmonella enteritidis.

The contaminated eggs were distributed to food wholesalers and retailers in Arkansas, California, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas, Cal-Maine reported. The full list of contaminated brands and lots is below.

There have been no confirmed illnesses related to the purchased eggs, but “consumers who believe they may have purchased potentially affected shell eggs should not eat them,” Cal-Maine said in a statement. “Return them to the store where they were purchased for a full refund.”

Consumers can also call Cal-Maine’s corporate office at 866-276-6299 between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. central time with questions and concerns.

But Cal-Maine’s chickens didn’t lay the diseased eggs. The eggs came from Ohio Fresh Eggs, whose biggest investor was Austin “Jack” DeCoster (who invested $125 million, according to Ohio court records). The two owners, Orland Bethel and Don Hershey, invested $10,000 apiece, the records show.

Mr. DeCoster and Mr. Bethel each own one of the two Iowa farms – Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, respectively – that distributed the 550 million eggs recalled this summer. The 1,600 reported cases of salmonella linked to those contaminated eggs constitute the largest outbreak since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began tracking salmonella in the late 1970s.

Repeat offender

This is not the first time that DeCoster's farming operations have been cited for problems. In June 2000, DeCoster became the first person labeled a “habitual violator” of Iowa’s environmental laws, meaning that his business had already been successfully sued at least three times by the Iowa attorney general.

Under Iowa state law, habitual violators can have daily fines quintupled from $5,000 to $25,000 and they are prohibited from expanding their business. Despite this, the Iowa Independent reports, DeCoster has found work-arounds that allow his agro-empire to keep growing.

Fines DeCoster has paid over the years include:

  • $1.5 million to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in 2003 to resolve charges of sexual harassment and rape by company supervisors, reports Lynda Waddington of the Iowa Independent.
  • $2.1 million in 2003, accompanying a guilty plea on charges of knowingly hiring illegal immigrants. (In subsequent years, immigration raids found dozens of undocumented workers.)
  • $3.5 million in 1996, for mistreatment of workers at egg farms in Maine, reported The New York Times.

In September, Bethel, DeCoster, and his son Peter DeCoster appeared before the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee. Bethel declined to answer questions, citing the Fifth Amendment. The younger Mr. DeCoster, now CEO of Wright County Egg, claimed that the salmonella contamination must have been caused by externally supplied food.

At that congressional hearing, the elder DeCoster addressed concerns about his farms. “We were horrified to learn that our eggs may have made people sick," he said in the statement he read to the subcommittee. "We apologize to every one who may have been sickened by eating our eggs. I pray several times each day for all of them and for their improved health."

A few weeks later, on Oct. 18, the FDA issued a warning letter to Jack and Peter DeCoster outlining the unsanitary conditions and related health-code violations they had identified during an August visit. The details, including rodent infestations, wildlife contamination, burgeoning manure pits, and other unpleasantness, are “not intended to be an all-inclusive list of violations at your facility,” the letter stated. “Failure to take prompt corrective action may result in regulatory action being initiated by the Food and Drug Administration without further notice. These actions include, but are not limited to, seizure and/or injunction.”

“FDA's findings are truly stomach churning,” said Caroline Smith DeWaal, food safety director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), in a statement. “FDA's inspections document companies with long-standing violations and apparently little intention to comply. The decrepit conditions in these hen houses reflect the fact that companies know that FDA inspections are so rare – even following the adoption of a new safety regulation – that there is no urgency to fix their buildings and their operations to assure compliance with FDA statutes and regulations.”

Threat of suits

DeCoster also faces the possibility of private lawsuits. Seattle food safety attorney William Marler has assembled 105 people who fell ill after consuming contaminated eggs this summer, and is coordinating lawsuits. “Why is this ‘habitual violator’ not closed?” Mr. Marler asked in his blog.

"The USDA and FDA [are] without teeth in the current situation. I don't know what they can do to put Jack DeCoster out of business," said Marler's associate, Drew Falkenstein. "With the addition of this most recent recall ... there's obviously a problem with Jack DeCoster's system."

Peter DeCoster's claim of contaminated food is a red herring, he said. The FDA requires that there be systems in place to contain or prevent the spread of disease, regardless of its point of entry, and those systems are either nonexistent or broken at DeCoster's farms, Mr. Falkenstein said. "There was negligence hand over fist in this situation."

If you think you may have bought some of the 288,000 recalled eggs, check your cartons against the package codes below. Plant numbers and Julian dates can be found printed on the individual cartons. The Julian date follows the plant number. For example: P 1457-282 refers to eggs from plant 1457 and packaged on Oct. 9, the 282nd day of the year.

Product Description UPC Code Plant Number Julian Date Sell By/Expiration Date
Sunny Meadow Jumbo 6 05388 71459 6 1457 282, 284 11/07/10;11/09/10
Sunny Meadow Large 6 05388 71457 2 1457 282 11/07/10
Sunny Meadow Large 18 6 05388 71461 9 1457 282 11/07/10
Sunny Meadow Extra Large 6 05388 71458 9 1457 284 11/09/10
Sunny Meadow Extra Large 18 8 13905 00120 7 1457 282 11/07/10
Sunny Meadow 5 Dozen 6 81131 74355 6 1457 284 11/09/10
Sunny Meadow 6 Pack 6 05388 71462 6 1457 284 11/09/10
Springfield Grocer Medium Loose   1457 282 11/07/10
Springfield Grocer Extra Large Loose   1457 284 11/09/10
Springfield Grocer Large Loose   1457 284 11/09/10
Sun Valley Large 0 33643 00018 2 1457 284 11/24/10
James Farm Medium 0 97009 01083 3 1457 285 11/07/10
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