The operations of Austin (Jack) DeCoster’s egg-producing agribusiness are once again under investigation. In the 1980’s DeCoster had an egg business in Massey in Kent County that had a certain notoriety in the area for violations of employment and hygiene. Now the egg recall, first announced last week and expanded Wednesday to 380 million eggs due to a salmonella outbreak, has once again thrust DeCoster’s methods and record into the news. The recall and subsequent investigation was initiated in part due to a lawsuit in Wisconsin over salmonella-infected eggs that sickened one woman who ate hard-boiled egg in a Cobb salad. A dozen more lawsuits linked to the outbreak are in the works.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that it had seen a fourfold increase in the usual number of cases of salmonella enteritidis, a strain associated with eggs. The CDC said it received reports of about 200 enteritidis cases every week during late June and early July. More than 260 illnesses in California have been linked to the outbreak. Minnesota has tied at least seven salmonella illnesses to the eggs.
No deaths have been reported, said Christopher Braden, a CDC epidemiologist.
The DeCoster operations have had several violations:
• The founder, Austin Jackson DeCoster, pleaded guilty to federal immigration charges in 2003 and paid a record $2.1 million in penalties.
• In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission imposed a $1.5 million penalty for mistreatment of female workers, including charges of rape, sexual harassment and other abuse.
• In 2001, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that DeCoster, a repeat violator of state environmental laws, could finance, but not build, hog confinement operations for his son, Peter DeCoster, who is now closely involved with the Wright County egg operations.
• Earlier this year, the elder DeCoster paid a fine to settle state animal cruelty charges against his egg operations in Maine.
Federal authorities have been on the DeCoster farms since last week investigating its henhouses and testing eggs to determine the source of the contamination, said Howard Magwire, an attorney for the United Egg Producers, a trade group that includes the DeCoster operations in its membership.
“The company itself is testing many thousands of eggs from the farms to see if they can find anything,” he said.
He said the company had “erred on the side of safety” by making the recall as large as it is.
State and local officials also are investigating salmonella cases that could be linked to the DeCoster eggs in Arizona, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas. The recalled eggs were packaged under a variety of names, including Lucerne and Albertsons, brands of supermarket giants Safeway and Albertsons, respectively.
The website at the Egg Safety Center noted below lists the recalled cartons.
Eggs were a major source of salmonella illnesses in the 1990s, but outbreaks had declined significantly over the past decade as farms took a number of biosecurity measures and other steps to prevent contamination. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration imposed mandatory safety regulations, including egg testing requirements, that many farms had already been following, according to industry experts.
Symptoms of salmonella poisoning can manifest as many as two or three days after exposure. For a detailed list of symptoms (way more than you want to know, probably) go to: