From farm to store to recall
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 31, 2013 - In August 2010, Wright County Egg of Galt, Iowa, announced a nationwide voluntary recall of shell eggs. Later that month another Iowa farm owned by Wright County Egg, conducted a nationwide recall as well.
Iowa is home to more than 52 million laying hens and is the No. 1 egg producing state. Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms were owned by DeCoster Egg Farms, which operated facilities in multiple states at the time. At the time of the recall DeCoster was the third largest egg producer in the United States.
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After several illnesses were linked to DeCoster eggs, the Food and Drug Administration collected environmental samples from the Iowa farms to test for Salmonella. Positive samples were collected from manure, as well as walkways, equipment, other surfaces and the feed mill at Wright County Egg. The feed was provided to pullets (young hens) and older hens raised at the facilities. Pullets were distributed to all premises at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. A positive sample also was collected from egg water wash in a packing facility at Hillandale Farms.
These findings indicated that Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms were the likely sources of the contaminated shell eggs. The FDA did not find that the contaminated feed was distributed to any companies other than Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms.
Recalled eggs had been distributed to grocery distribution centers, retail grocery stores and food service companies in 14 states: Arkansas, California, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin.
Three months later, in November 2010 another recall was announced, this time affecting nearly 290,000 eggs shipped from Ohio Fresh Eggs in Croton, Ohio, to Cal-Maine Foods Inc., the nation’s largest egg producer and distributor.
Ohio is the nation’s No. 2 egg producing state with 28 million layers housed there.
More than 90 percent of the egg cartons containing the adulterated eggs again carried the U.S. Department of Agriculture grade mark for quality.
Agricultural Marketing Service was not notified by either the FDA or the egg company about a Salmonella E. positive test. Rather, officials learned of the recall from the FDA website, according to a 2012 federal audit by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General.
The report said that a federal inspector at one of the egg laying facilities involved in the recall learned of the positive test after the egg laying barn had been emptied and was being disinfected. The eggs had been shipped. At the receiving location, this led to the grade mark being applied without the Agricultural Marketing Service worker there knowing of the positive test or recall at the laying barn.
In the wake of a criminal investigation and civil lawsuits, DeCoster Egg Farms closed its doors in 2011. Centrum Valley Farms has leased the Iowa properties involved in the 2010 recall.
The head of DeCoster Egg Farms, Austin “Jack” DeCoster, and his son Peter, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in September 2010.
No federal charges have been filed against DeCoster; however, there were more than 100 civil lawsuits filed against the egg company by people who were sickened by the contaminated eggs. The DeCosters said very little during the recall due to the pending litigation.
DeCoster was not a stranger to the courtroom. He and and other company employees were convicted in 2003 for hiring illegal immigrant workers; charged with bribing a USDA inspector in 2010; and paid more than $130,000 to settle an animal cruelty case at a Maine farm.
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is an independent, nonprofit newsroom devoted to coverage of agribusiness and related topics such as government programs, environment and energy. Visit us at www.investigatemidwest.org.