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DeCoster Knew About Contamination for Months Before Recall

Iowa State University’s government-funded Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory knew that laying eggs produced by DeCoster Farms were likely contaminated with Salmonella months before more than half a billion eggs from its facility were recalled two years ago.

ISU’s lab, employing 125 people with a $3.2 million budget funded annually by Iowa taxpayers, provided “third-party quality assured diagnostic services” for Austin “Jack” DeCoster’s egg empire and discovered the problem long before the August 2010 recall.

This disclosure is the latest information to fall out of the NuCal Foods lawsuit against DeCoster.   The California cooperative purchased millions of the contaminated eggs from DeCoster Farms, causing it to be subject to lawsuits from its customers.

It was the NuCal litigation that brought to light the fact that DeCoster is the likely target of a federal criminal investigation.  And now the NuCal litigation has brought out the ISU lab results.

ISU did the lab work for DeCoster, finding Salmonella in the manure at several of his Iowa egg-laying barns and in the internal organs of dead hens. The egg producer sought out ISU’s diagnostic services because hens were dying at an unusually high rate.

ISU gave the results to DeCoster, but did not alert consumers. Rodger Main, operations director at the veterinary lab, said the strain involved did not have to be reported to either the state or federal government, and doing so outside of any requirement would violate confidentiality agreements the lab signs with food producers.

DeCoster paid for the voluntary testing and Main says it was up to the egg producer to “interpret the information.”

ISU collected samples from DeCoster’s farms beginning in January 2010 and continued each month through the spring.  By April, the lab found that samples from 43 percent of DeCoster’s Iowa poultry houses tested positive for Salmonella.  DeCoster then had to lab test the dead chickens.

After finding Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) in the livers of laying hens, ISU scientist Darrell Trampel concluded that the pathogen was “almost certainly ” in the eggs. The lab reported the finding to a DeCoster manager on May 1, 2010.

The findings were being duplicated in samples from chickens at all locations inside the DeCoster production facilities. ISU’s lab asked the National Veterinary Services Laboratory, also in Ames, IA, to review the results. The national lab confirmed the results.

While it is not entirely clear what DeCoster farms did between May and August, NuCal argues the egg producer did not test eggs or decontaminate to control for Salmonella.

The two Iowa DeCoster operations, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, together recalled 550 million shell eggs between Aug. 13 and 20, 2010.

Eggs from those facilities are blamed for at least 1,939 Salmonella Enteriditis illnesses that occurred in the United States between May 1 and Nov. 30, 2010. With unconfirmed illnesses, it’s likely more than 31,000 people were sickened by the bad eggs.

The criminal investigation, which reportedly involves a federal grand jury, is targeting DeCoster, his son Peter and Patsy Larson, chief financial officer for the company.  Through their lawyers, the DeCosters and Larson have denied “knowingly” letting contaminated eggs get distributed.

As for ISU’s role in the outbreak, Trampel insists that ethically and legally the lab’s only responsibility is to report results to the owners.

© Food Safety News
  • susan rudnicki

    At bottom, the failure of all these reports to get to the bottom of the problem is reprehensible. As long as our industrialization model is tolerated, nay–encouraged and abetted by our government and citizens, these outbreaks will increase in number. The animals we cram into wire cages, stacked several stories high, have the most miserable, filthy, maddening lives and yet we think we can “control” the infective microbes?? It is what we deserve for such arrogance and cruelty—all about the greed of money and profit

  • Expat

    While I agree with the above comment, I think this story documents an insidious element that most stories on industrial food miss: the complicity of the legal system. Why should a public university not have procedures to immediately inform the public when a threat to public health is detected? These guys, as public employees of the University, serve the public. By relying on a private relationship established by private contract, they violated the public trust. If they can’t do the public’s work when they are under contract with a business, then they should not be able to enter into those contracts, period. Any term of the contract that prevents immediate action regarding threats to public health should be ILLEGAL. If judges are too cowardly to establish this principle on their own, the University and the legislature must act. It is the only responsible way to prevent the DeCosters of the world from profiting from poisoning the public. It’s time to end the tyranny of business ideologues who seem to believe that profits come before everything else.
    If reporting would deter characters like DeCoster from “voluntarily” researching his operation, then mandate it. How ridiculous, after 8000 years of experience, to rely on the businessmens’ better nature. Today, business is so degenerate that the threat of massive fines and lifelong prison sentences is the only way to get them to behave like civilized human beings. How much easier it would be to prevent bad behaviour if they were ashamed to be exposed as evil profiteers.