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