From The Washington Post:
The Iowa egg producer that federal officials say is at the center of a salmonella outbreak and recalls of more than a half-billion eggs has repeatedly paid fines and settled complaints over health and safety violations and allegations ranging from maintaining a “sexually hostile work environment” to abusing the hens that lay the eggs.
In the past 20 years, according to the public record, the DeCoster family operation, one of the 10 largest egg producers in the country, has withstood a string of reprimands, penalties and complaints about its performance in several states.
In June, for instance, the family agreed to pay a $34,675 fine stemming from allegations of animal cruelty against hens in its 5-million bird Maine facility.
DeCoster owns Wright County Egg in Iowa, which last week recalled 380 million eggs distributed nationwide. A federal investigation into 26 outbreaks of salmonella enteritidis, the second-leading cause of food-borne illness, found that 15 of the outbreaks pointed to Wright County Egg.
The DeCoster family also has close ties to Hillandale Farms of Iowa, which on Friday recalled 170 million eggs distributed to 14 states in the Midwest and West after scientists in Minnesota linked one salmonella outbreak to Hillandale.
As the family’s holdings have expanded, so has the list of allegations against it:
— In 1996, DeCoster was fined $3.6 million for health and safety violations at the family’s Turner egg farm, which then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich termed “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen.” Regulators found that workers had been forced to handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands and to live in filthy trailers.
— In 1999, the company paid $5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit involving unpaid overtime for 3,000 workers.
— In 2001, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that DeCoster was a “repeat violator” of state environmental laws, citing violations involving the family’s hog-farming operations. The family was forbidden to expand its hog-farming interests in the state.
— Also in 2001, DeCoster Farms of Iowa settled, for $1.5 million, a complaint brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the company had subjected 11 undocumented female workers from Mexico to a “sexually hostile work environment,” including sexual assault and rape by supervisors.
— In 2002, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the family’s Maine Contract Farming branch $345,810 for an array of violations. The same year, DeCoster Egg Farms of Maine paid $3.2 million to settle a lawsuit filed in 1998 by Mexican workers alleging discrimination in housing and working conditions.
— In 2003, Jack DeCoster paid the federal government $2.1 million as part of a plea agreement after federal agents found more than 100 undocumented workers at his Iowa egg farms. It was the largest penalty ever against an Iowa employer. Three years later, agents found 30 workers suspected of being illegal immigrants at a DeCoster farm in Iowa. And in 2007, raids at other DeCoster Iowa farms uncovered 51 more suspected undocumented workers.
— In 2006, Ohio’s Agriculture Department revoked the permits of Ohio Fresh Eggs because its new co-owners, including Hillandale founder Orland Bethel, had failed to disclose that DeCoster had put up $126 million for the purchase, far more than their $10,000, and was heavily involved in managing the company. By playing down DeCoster’s role, the owners had avoided a background check into DeCoster’s “habitual violator” status in Iowa. An appeals panel overturned the revocation, saying the disclosure was adequate.
— In 2008, OSHA cited DeCoster’s Maine Contract Farming for violations that included forcing workers to retrieve eggs the previous winter from inside a building that had collapsed under ice and snow.
And that’s not all, kids. From Maine Today (May 5, 2007):
A Maine Human Rights Commission investigator has found reasonable grounds for a manager’s claim that he was fired from his job at DeCoster farms because he’s an atheist.…snip…The official reason for [Cacy] Cantwell’s firing in November 2006 was “poor job performance,” but the commission’s investigator, Barbara Lelli, said Cantwell received no written warnings about performance problems.Cantwell, who was provided housing he shared with a non-married partner, said he was criticized by Austin “Jack” DeCoster, a devout Christian, who didn’t approve of the living arrangement.On another occasion, DeCoster brought up God, and Cantwell said he was an atheist. Cantwell told the investigator that DeCoster put his hand on his shoulder and told him: “I can’t have someone like you here. We might need to part ways.”
From The Washington Post:
SALMONELLA enteritidis is a food-borne illness so common that the Food and Drug Administration moved last year to enact rules first proposed during the Bill Clinton administration. The new monitoring and safety requirements didn’t go into effect until last month. That was too late to possibly prevent the more than 1,200 cases of the illness, in at least 22 states, that have been reported since May. No deaths have been reported. But this latest outbreak highlights once again that efforts to sew up the holes in the country’s food safety net have gone nowhere for more than a year.
FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg called it an “unfortunate irony” that the egg regulations became enforceable after the current outbreak was well underway.
If there’s a silver lining in the massive recall, it is that this latest outbreak of food-borne illness (remember peanuts, peppers, tomatoes, spinach, etc.) appears to have sparked action in the Senate, where comprehensive food-safety legislation has languished since July 2009. The bill would give the FDA the power to initiate a mandatory recall of contaminated products. And it would set up systems to trace food from farm to fork, thus making it easier and faster to pinpoint sources of contamination. A vote by the full Senate is expected as soon as it returns Sept. 13. In the meantime, go to http://www.foodsafety.gov to find out which brands of eggs are affected and what you can do to protect yourself.