Serious Salmonella Outbreak Prompts Congressional Hearing
Earlier this year, a salmonella outbreak caused by contaminated chicken eggs sickened more than 1,600 people across the United States, sending many victims to the hospital with severe infections. The dangerous strain of bacteria was traced to several Iowa egg farms owned or supplied by the DeCoster family, factory farmers with a disturbing track record of repeated food safety, worker safety and animal rights violations. Two separate recalls of over half a million eggs produced by farms linked to the DeCosters were issued in August.
On Wednesday, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations questioned DeCoster family patriarch Austin “Jack” DeCoster , and his son, Peter DeCoster, as part of a government hearing investigating the salmonella outbreak. The DeCosters run Wright County Egg, a collection of five factory egg farms in Iowa that FDA officials have pinpointed as a primary source of the widespread salmonella outbreak that affected people in at least eleven states.
Also summoned for questioning were Orland Bethel, President of Hillandale Farms, and Duane Mangskau, a Production Representative from Hillandale Farms. Wright County Egg supplied Hillandale Farms with poultry feed — and contaminated feed containing the same strain of salmonella that caused the outbreak was found at both locations.
Committee Chair Representative Henry Waxman of California, Vice Chair Rep. Diana DeGette of Colorado, Subcommittee Chair Rep. Bart Stupak of Michigan, Rep. Bruce Braley of Iowa and Rep. Michael Burgess of Texas were among the members of Congress who heard testimony from salmonella outbreak victims and questioned the egg producers about the safety and sanitation practices on their farms.
At Wright County Egg, U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors discovered crowded conditions, rodent and insect infestations, and henhouses so overflowing with piles of chicken manure that the doors could not be closed. At Hillandale Farms, inspections revealed a leaking manure storage pit, severe rodent problems, and escaped hens wandering through filth and piles of manure, tracking dirt and germs into areas where other hens lay eggs.
(These disturbing FDA photos of Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farm conditions were featured prominently at the hearing — click at your own risk.)
The factory farm owners and administrators called to testify before Congress to explain these conditions were quick to minimize responsibility and shift blame. Hillandale Farms President Orland Bethel refused to answer questions altogether, citing his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination.
Rep. Burgess asked Bethel anyway about an email to another egg farmer with ties to DeCoster, John Glessner, in which Bethel wrote, “Hillandale needs to totally disassociate itself from Jack [DeCoster] and it has 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.”
But Bethel again refused to respond.
Austin “Jack” DeCoster himself, meanwhile, apologized without directly admitting responsibility, saying, “We were horrified to learn that our eggs may have made people sick. We apologize to everyone who may have been sickened by eating our eggs.” He placed particular emphasis on the word “may”.
DeCoster then tried to blame the food safety and animal welfare failures at his Iowa farms on the growing pains of a small family business that suddenly went big. “While we were big, but still acting like we were small, we got into trouble with government requirements several times,” DeCoster said.
Not Your Typical Family Egg Farm
But the DeCoster egg empire is no small family farm. DeCoster has been in the factory egg farming business for over 30 years — and has been racking up food safety, animal welfare and worker safety violations at the county and state level during that entire career.
He has fully owned or owned stakes in large factory egg farms in Maryland, Maine and Ohio. Wright County Egg in Iowa, alone, employs 350 workers and produces 1.4 billion eggs each year. Peter DeCoster testified that the family’s five Iowa farms boast a total of 73 barn-sized henhouses, with each barn containing at least 80,000 hens.
And an investigative report at Grist.org recently revealed that Austin “Jack” DeCoster may actually, secretly, be the largest egg producer in the United States, controlling a web of complicated ownership ties to egg businesses across the country that produce billions upon billions of eggs, destined for restaurant supply chains and supermarket shelves.
Are Unsafe Conditions an Egg Industry Standard?
In my view, one of the most striking moments of testimony Wednesday came from DeCoster empire scion Peter DeCoster, who, when questioned by Rep. Henry Waxman about the filthy conditions discovered at Wright County Egg facilities, answered that many of those conditions — including, for example, feeding chickens ground chicken bone and meat, and storing several-foot chicken manure piles directly under laying hens — are “standard practice” in the egg farming industry.
Of course a corporate farm executive trying to minimize his company’s responsibility for a foodborne illness outbreak would say that conditions at his farm were “standard practice.” And yet, if the DeCoster family influences or controls many of the biggest factory egg farms in the United States, then perhaps Peter DeCoster speaks the truth: the DeCosters set the industry standard.
Just how many commercial factory egg farms in the United States are run the DeCoster way?
We will know more once the FDA completes its inspection of 600 of the country’s largest egg farms — farms that produce more than 80 percent of the eggs U.S. consumers eat. Prompted by the discoveries at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, the inspections are slated to be completed by the end of 2011.
The FDA’s Political Problem
But while the FDA has the authority to inspect factory farms, it currently has a very limited ability to enforce its own food safety regulations once violations are found. Many Americans are unaware of the fact that the FDA has no authority to issue mandatory food product recalls — it can only currently publicize violations and urge food producers to issue their own recalls voluntarily.
Care2′s own Judy Molland asked last month why the FDA had not yet shut the DeCoster family’s egg operations down, and the simplest answer is: it can’t, at least, not without assistance from other branches of government.
Which is why many of the members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee took Wednesday’s salmonella outbreak hearings as an opportunity to urge the U.S. Senate to take action on a new food safety bill that has already passed in the House.
The Food Safety Modernization Act would grant the FDA the authority to conduct more rigorous inspections, require farmers and food producers to report unsafe conditions at their facilities, and allow the FDA to issue mandatory food product recalls when a disease outbreak puts public health at risk.
In response to news that Republican Senator Tom Coburn is threatening to hold up the Senate’s vote on the legislation, Rep. Waxman, a Democrat, said in his opening statement at Wednesday’s hearing, “I have a plea for Senator Coburn: For the sake of [ . . . ] hundreds of thousands of Americans who are poisoned by salmonella every year, please lift your hold and allow this vital safety legislation to move forward.”
Democratic Rep. Stupak agreed, saying “Make no mistake: Without legislative action it is not a matter of if but when more lives will be put at risk by another outbreak, as evident by today’s hearing,” and later adding, “It is time to give our regulators the tools they need to be pro-active in the fight against fight food borne illnesses and disease.”
And Republican Rep. Burgess called for swift passage of the bipartisan bill as well, urging, “The future FDA should not be a reactive body — it should be proactive.”
To send Tom Coburn your own message, and to urge the Senate to pass the Food Safety Modernization Act, please sign our Care2 Petition.
And, if you are an egg eater concerned about this salmonella scandal and aren’t ready to try raising your own backyard flock, you might consider buying eggs only from local small farmers whose farms you can tour yourself to check for clean conditions and humanely treated hens.
Image credit: Enhanced detail of Chicken Eggs photo by Miya. Used under Creative Commons license.