In August 2010, Wright County Egg of Galt, IA, announced a nationwide voluntary recall of shell eggs. Later that month, another Iowa farm owned by Wright County Egg conducted a nationwide recall as well.
Iowa is home to more than 52 million laying hens and is the number-one egg producing state. Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms were owned by DeCoster Egg Farms, which operated facilities in multiple states at the time. At the time of the recall, DeCoster was the third-largest egg producer in the United States.
After several illnesses had been linked to DeCoster eggs, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration collected multiple environmental samples from the Iowa farms to test for Salmonella strains. Salmonella-positive samples were collected from manure, as well as from traffic areas such as walkways, equipment, other surfaces, and from the feed mill at Wright County Egg.
The feed was provided to pullets (young hens) and older hens raised at the facilities. Pullets were distributed to all premises at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. A positive sample also was collected from egg water wash in a packing facility at Hillandale Farms.
These findings indicated that Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms were the likely sources of the contaminated shell eggs. FDA did not find that the contaminated feed was distributed to any companies other than Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms.
Recalled eggs had been distributed to grocery distribution centers, retail grocery stores and food service companies located in 14 states: Arkansas, California, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, Texas and Wisconsin.
Three months later, in November 2010, another recall was announced, this time affecting nearly 290,000 eggs shipped from Ohio Fresh Eggs in Croton, OH, to Cal-Maine Foods Inc., the nation’s largest egg producer and distributor. Ohio is the nation’s number-two egg-producing state, with 28 million layers being housed there.
Agricultural Marketing Service was not notified by either FDA or the egg company about a Salmonella E. positive test. Rather, officials learned of the recall from the FDA Website, according to a 2012 federal audit by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General.
The report said that a federal inspector at one of the egg-laying facilities involved in the recall learned of the positive test after the egg-laying barn had been emptied and was being disinfected. The eggs had been shipped.
At the receiving location, this led to the grade mark being applied without the Agricultural Marketing Service worker there knowing of the positive test or recall at the laying barn.
In the wake of a criminal investigation and civil lawsuits, DeCoster Egg Farms closed its doors in 2011. Centrum Valley Farms has leased the Iowa properties involved in the 2010 recall.
The head of DeCoster Egg Farms, Austin “Jack” DeCoster, and his son Peter, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations in September 2010.
No federal charges have been filed against DeCoster; however, there were more than 100 civil lawsuits filed against the egg company by people who were sickened by the contaminated eggs. The DeCosters said very little during the recall due to the pending litigation.
DeCoster was not a stranger to the courtroom. According to multiple online articles, DeCoster and other company employees were convicted in 2003 for hiring illegal immigrant workers and charged with bribing a USDA inspector in 2010. DeCoster also paid more than $130,000 to settle an animal cruelty case at a Maine farm.
Safety not a factor in inspections for egg quality
The 2010 recall of more than 500 million shell eggs illustrates the lack of communication and coordination among federal agencies involved in the egg-inspection process. It also demonstrates the confusing structure of the system that provides authority and establishes which agencies have oversight when it comes to egg safety.
The three different offices of the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Marketing Service, Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and the Food and Safety Inspection Service – were not communicating with each other or the department’s general counsel, a 2012 audit found.
And the Agriculture Department was not communicating well with the independent FDA, which had been given lead authority for egg safety.
Shortly after the August 2010 recall, an Ohio-based producer recalled more than 280,000 eggs – of which 90 percent contained the official USDA grade mark for quality. Likewise, so did most of the half a billion eggs recalled in August 2010.
“We look strictly at the quality of the egg, not the safety,” said Sam Jones, a spokesman for Agricultural Marketing Service. “Safety inspection of the egg is the responsibility of either FDA or FSIS.”
A 2012 federal audit by USDA’s Office of Inspector General – released in December – questioned the standards used by Jones’ office when applying the grade mark for quality to egg cartons. It handles the grading of eggs as “Grade A” or “Jumbo,” for example.
Larger egg producers, about one-third of the industry, pay Agricultural Marketing Service to provide onsite certification personnel. Jones is quick to clarify that the USDA grade mark for quality is just that – for quality.
Quality, according to Jones’ office, is reflected in the size, appearance and condition of the egg. An egg containing Salmonella E. could still be marked as grade AA and certified by quality inspectors.
However, the audit asserts that the grade mark is also an indication that the eggs are “fit for human food” and that Agricultural Marketing Service practices should be updated.
The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting is an independent, nonprofit newsroom devoted to coverage of agribusiness and related topics such as government programs, environment and energy. Visit them at www.investigatemidwest.org.