When 550 million shell eggs were recalled from two Iowa farms in 2010 as the nation experienced an outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis (SE), Austin “Jack” DeCoster owned or controlled the largest egg production conglomerate in the U.S. Government attorneys say he knew more than he’s let on about controlling the pathogen, and they plan to prove it at sentencing. Among those holdings, as it turned out, were both Iowa production facilities targeted in the largest recall of shell eggs in U.S. history, Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. DeCoster reluctantly acknowledged Hillandale was his after it was tied to Wright Farms by a common feed mill. Now DeCoster, 71, and his son, Peter DeCoster, 51, are awaiting sentencing after entering guilty pleas for selling adulterated food. The defendants hope that a novel legal theory being advanced by their attorneys will keep them out of jail. While that issue may be complicating sentencing, government attorneys are planning on bringing up what DeCoster knew, or should have known, about controlling Salmonella Enteritidis from his experience of running that egg production conglomerate. At the time of the outbreak, DeCoster was known as a major egg producer, with holdings stretching from Maine to Ohio to Iowa. But other DeCoster egg holdings and investments were kept secret, including his stake in Hillandale Farms. Journalists such as Tom Philpott at Grist kept probing until the true size of the DeCoster egg holdings were nailed down. At sentencing, government attorneys say they will present evidence that DeCoster’s Quality Egg in Iowa did not follow the SE prevention and remediation practices that the company had been forced to implement in Maine. The government’s thinking is that you cannot run that many egg businesses without knowing a few things about SE. “For example,” prosecutors say, “since 2009, the State of Maine had imposed a ‘zero-tolerance’ rodent policy mandating that if multiple mice are seen in a layer barn, the barn must be depopulated, cleaned and tested for SE before a new flock of hens can be placed in the same barn.” “Government witnesses will testify that Quality Egg of Iowa had a serious rodent problem that it was just starting to address when the 2010 Salmonella outbreak occurred, and that when rodents or even SE were detected in the Iowa layer barns, defendants did not depopulate, clean, or even retest for SE,” court documents say. Government attorneys will argue the defendants tolerated a situation in Iowa where rodents proliferated and layer hens contracted and shed SE in the barns and laid SE-contaminated eggs, all the while knowing from the conglomerate’s experience in Maine how to prevent and eradicate the pathogen. Jack and Peter DeCoster have both pleaded guilty to selling adulterated food, a federal misdemeanor with a possible prison term of up to one year. In April plea agreements, they agreed to personally pay fines of $100,000 each, but their attorneys are arguing that their clients cannot be jailed or confined in any manner. The defendants also claim that they have no knowledge of the violation or no knowledge of the conduct underlying the offense. Government attorneys say the evidence indicates otherwise. “To the contrary, defendants knew about the insanitary conditions at Quality Egg LLC (Quality Egg), including Salmonella contamination throughout its barns and flocks, but they disregarded the obvious and serious risk that Salmonella also contaminated the shell eggs sold by Quality Eggs,” the government claims. At sentencing, prosecutors will argue that the defendants had a “culpable mental state,” which eliminates their argument for no jail time. The government also says that custodial sentences are constitutionally permissible for strict-liability offenses. “Particularly where, as here, a strict-liability offense involves conduct that has the potential to cause substantial and widespread harm to public health, the possibility of incarceration does not offend the Constitution, regardless of whether it is judged (as defendants contend) under the more general standards of the Due Process Clause, or (as it arguably should be) under the Eighth Amendment’s standards for ‘cruel and unusual punishment,’” the prosecution team adds. The Pre-Sentence Investigative Reports (PSIRs) for both defendants, although sealed and subject to objections, reportedly state that both DeCosters knew of the significant SE contamination at their Iowa egg production facility Also, government attorneys say that defendant objections to the PSIRs “reflect their knowledge of preventative and ameliorative measures recommended to control the company’s SE and pest control problems.” They also had knowledge of multiple SE environmental tests performed in their barns and hen necropsies that were positive for SE, prosecutors say. Quality Egg pleaded guilty to two misdemeanors and the felony count of bribing a public official (an egg inspector). A family trust, Quality Egg has agreed to pay a $6.8-million fine. DeCoster announced in 2011 that the family would divest its egg businesses. At one time, its collection of egg businesses totaled 35.6 million hens, making DeCoster the largest egg producer in the U.S. It’s unclear how much, if any, are left.