A year ago, the national media, spurred on by information from activists organizations, were quick to paint the recall of more than a half billion shell eggs as the work of just one man –agricultural business baron Jack DeCoster, who has had one regulatory run-in after another in the multiple states where he operates.

DeCoster is not standing out any more. Other big egg producers are looking a lot like him.

More than a year into sporadic attempts to enforce a new egg rule for large producers, inspections conducted by the  U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are proving that DeCoster practices are not really that unusual for America’s 600 largest egg producers.

Take Indiana’s White County Egg Farm, for example. Under multiple brand names, White County ships eggs for retail sales into Chicago in massive numbers. One expert says it would be hard to buy eggs in Chicago without purchasing a brand supplied by White County. An FDA inspection last April found Salmonella enteritidis (SE) in White County’s egg laying houses.

Yet FDA did not suspend sales from White County’s egg laying barns and Chicagoans have been in the dark for months about the SE contamination involving the Windy City’s main source of eggs. Instead, FDA’s Detroit office asked for a “regulatory meeting” with White’s owners.

Iowa’s newspaper of record, The Des Moines Register, this week marked the anniversary of last year’s half billion egg recall with an in-depth report on the the food safety shortcomings of the state’s egg industry.  With few exceptions, its report applies to the nation’s entire egg industry.  

Last year when Salmonella linked to shell eggs infected 1,900 people nationwide, DeCoster was at the center of the story because he owned the two Iowa egg farms involved and his past is filled with controversy over his various agricultural operations.  His Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms were responsible for the largest shell egg recall in U.S. history.

According to the Register, unsanitary conditions and inadequate  protection against Salmonella continue to be the reality at Iowa egg farms. Egg producers who find Salmonella contamination in their birds or laying houses do not have to tell anyone and the Register reported there have been no fines or penalties imposed by either state or federal agencies.

Iowa is the nation’s No. 1 egg producer.

Chicago’s egg supplier in White County, IN is owned by Rose Acre Farm Inc., which is based in Seymour.  Like DeCoster, it is one of the nation’s largest egg producers.

Also last April, FDA investigators attempting to inspect the Rose Acre Farms egg production facility in Guthrie Center, Iowa were waved off because some of the chickens had Marek’s Disease. It is easily prevented with vaccines.

Marek’s Disease is a viral tumor-causing  disease that is highly contagious disease among chickens, but poises no danger to humans. According to the Register, the state veterinarian told the federal agents they should not re-enter the Guthrie City egg farm and advised them to stay off other farms or egg-producing facilities for five days.   

Since last July, the new rule designed to reduce Salmonella contamination in raw eggs has applied only  to the 600 largest egg producers. In 2012, it will apply to all egg farms with 3,000 birds or more. Some egg buyers wonder how the smaller egg farms will do given the difficulty large producers are having with the egg rule.

According to FDA, the new rule requires environmental testing 4-6 weeks after the end of each molt, and again when any group of hens within a house is 40-45 weeks old.

The new rule also requires bio-security measures, control of pests and rodents, cleaning and disinfection at depopulation, and proper refrigeration.

The industry’s own push for higher standards, the “Five Star” program at United Egg Producers, has existed since before last year’s big egg recall and comes in for criticism for lacking teeth.

FDA’s own standard operating procedures for enforcing the new egg rule also come in for criticism from food safety experts who asked not to be named.

Egg inspections are being carried out mostly by four inspector teams operating at the district level. Some say it would be more productive to have two or three teams of egg production specialists who could get through all the inspections faster.

Even the smallest jurisdiction doing restaurant inspections does not give advance warning of inspections, but FDA does warn producers who sell millions of eggs that it is coming.

FDA’s warning letters and Form 483 reports of Inspectional Observations still contain certain “redactions,”  even though the Obama Administration has boosted about its “transparency” since it took office.

Brands and building names and numbers, time and temperature data, counts of rodents and flies are examples of information that is often, but not always, blacked out.

Another inspection that the Register called out was Sparboe Farms in Eagle Grove, Iowa last May 16. It was the first time that location had ever been inspected since Sparboe began operations there in 2003.

FDA found Sparboe’s employees were moving freely among the facility’s various henhouses, including those that tested positive for Salmonella and those that did not. The industry is suppose to practice “bio-security,” taking such steps as changing out protective suits and foot coverings and cleaning equipment before moving from one building to another.

Movement of birds, rodent and flies among the buildings was also a problem at Sparboe.

Since last year’s big recall, it’s been hard to find an FDA Inspectional Observations Form (483) for a large egg producer that does not indicate a fundamental problem.

Some examples, mostly in the Northeast:

— Dorothy Egg Farms LLC in Turner, ME was written up for allowing stray animals to enter the poultry houses, sometimes going through the manure pit. Egg coolers were running too high, as high as 50 degrees when 45 is the limit; and bio-security records did not show cleaning of equipment going between buildings.

— Esbenshade Farms Inc. in Mount Joy, PA lacked steps to protect against cross contamination when employees moved between poultry houses on the same farm.

— DeCoster’s Maine Contracting Farm LLC in Turner, ME was found in late 2010 to be moving its “dead hen truck” into all the various laying houses without sanitizing the wheels and undercarriage as required in its bio-security plan.

Harborages for pests — debris and vegetation — were not removed from outside the poultry houses. Flies were not being monitored and recorded. There were also problems with the location of an excess feed trough, fans missing louvers and openings for birds to enter.

— Mountain Hollow Farms in Leeds, ME, inspected in late 2010, was not keeping eggs cool enough, allowing too many rodents, not documenting bio-security measures, and keeping inadequate records.

— Shippensburg, PA-based Hillside Poultry Farms Inc. last November was found with debris and vegetation in its poultry barns creating harborages for pests and cited for not controlling flies, nor maintaining proper records.

— At Marietta, PA-based Esbenshade Farms Inc., FDA was concerned about people causing cross contamination by moving between buildings, and lack of control of flies and rodents.

— Ohio Fresh Eggs, which had the latest large recall involving 290,000 eggs, was criticized for lacking a Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) prevention plan for spec
ific laying houses and for n
ot documenting its chick production from SE-monitored breeder flocks.  Also, Ohio Fresh was not testing pullets.

DeCoster also has a financial interest in Ohio Fresh, according to industry sources.

U.S. egg production during June 2011 — the latest month for which data is available — was 6.44 billion table eggs, up from last June’s 6.38 billion table eggs. Each American annually eats 247.4 eggs, down about 10 eggs from earlier in the decade.

Still, it means your individual odds of getting a bad egg are pretty low — something like one in 26 million. But tell that to the 1,900 people who got sick last year.