Iowans are so concerned about their state Secretary of Agriculture that the office is directly elected, and now the half billion recall of Iowa eggs may scramble that election.

Democratic challenger Francis Thicke (pronounced TICK-ee) has accused incumbent Republican Bill Northey of failing to police the giant egg farms responsible for a national outbreak of Salmonella, and thereby damaging Iowa’s reputation.

The two candidates met in a debate for the first time in Spencer.

“Normally in a debate I would begin by laying out my vision for Iowa agriculture and food production. However, Iowa is under a national microscope, ” said Thicke.   

“The egg recall and nationwide Salmonella food poisoning from Iowa eggs have damaged Iowa’s reputation. The Iowa Secretary of Agriculture should, above all, be the spokesperson for Iowa’s agriculture and food system and should be taking action to assure Iowans and the nation that this problem is being addressed. 

“I don’t see that happening. It’s not enough for the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture to say that this is a federal problem and that he is going to wait for an FDA report to see what the problem is. That does nothing to restore confidence in the integrity and reputation of Iowa’s food and agriculture system. 

Thicke then accused Northey of failing to enforce state regulation of feed that federal regulators say may be the source of the contamination.

“Preliminary indications are that the Salmonella contamination came from a commercial feed mill, owned by Jack DeCoster, which delivered feed to two Iowa egg-laying facilities. We know from Iowa Code, Chapter 198, that the Secretary of Agriculture has the authority and responsibility to inspect and ensure the integrity of feed mills that produce commercial feed,” Thicke continued. 

“But the secretary denies his authority to inspect the DeCoster feed mill, even though the law explicitly states that feed mills that sell feed or distribute feed to contract feeders should be licensed and inspected. Mr. Northey contends that DeCoster has a loophole exemption. What he does not say is that the law also says that the secretary has the authority to adopt rules to carry out the purpose and intent of Chapter 198. In other words, he has the authority to close loopholes in the law through rule making 

“As Secretary of Agriculture, I would not only fulfill my responsibility to inspect commercial feed mills, I would also lay out a regulatory framework to ensure food safety in the egg industry,” he added.

Northey, however, struck back saying state regulations apply to “commercial feed” and not the size of the feed mill.  

 “We have been told that this mill does not sell feed — that the birds at the [Hillandale Farms] facility are owned by [Jack] DeCoster as well. … Just as we don’t go to a farmer mixing his own feed, we do not go to those mills that are producing feed for private facilities,” Northey said.

The two candidates also had different approaches on state egg rules and so-called Concentrated Animal Food Operation (CAFO) locations.

Thicke wants Iowa to adopt egg regulations patterned after Maine —with vaccinations for laying hens; monthly inspections for sanitation and testing for Salmonella, and egg testing when Salmonella is found in a building.  He also favors local control over CAFOs.

Northey favors “one set of rules” for all of Iowa’s 99 counties in order to promote agriculture.  He wants to wait on the FDA investigation before deciding if more state regulation of eggs is required.

Thicke says Iowa should not just be No. 1 in eggs, but also No. 1 in egg safety.  The former USDA soil scientist owns an 80-acre organic dairy near Fairfield.

Northey, elected four years ago, is a corn and soybean farmer from near Spirit Lake.