by Gary Farber
"One big 20-year experiment" has been conducted on what happens when you leave egg safety to lax federal regulation, spotty state regulation, and the market, and the results aren't pretty.
On a July night in 1987, scores of elderly and chronically ill patients at Bird S. Coler Memorial Hospital in New York City began to fall violently sick with food poisoning from eggs tainted with salmonella.
“It was like a war zone,” said Dr. Philippe Tassy, the doctor on call as the sickness started to rage through the hospital. By the time the outbreak ended more than two weeks later, nine people had died and about 500 people had become sick. It remains the deadliest outbreak in this country attributed to eggs infected with the bacteria known as Salmonella enteritidis.
If someone murdered nine people, and wounded five hundred, with a gun, we Americans would have paid as much attention to this as we did the Columbine high school massacre, or Nidal Malik Hassan, or Charles Whitman.
This year, the same bacteria sickened thousands of people nationwide and led to the recall of half a billion eggs.
That, too, is a mass assault. Were it a terrorist attack, we'd be at Code Hysteria. Imagine the attention paid if al Qaeda had done this.
But, no, it's Austin J. DeCoster:
Despite the gap of decades, there is a crucial link between the two outbreaks: in both cases, the eggs came from farms owned by Austin J. DeCoster, one of the country’s biggest egg producers.
Mr. DeCoster’s frequent run-ins with regulators over labor, environmental and immigration violations have been well cataloged. But the close connections between Mr. DeCoster’s egg empire and the spread of salmonella in the United States have received far less scrutiny.
While some state regulators took steps to clamp down on tainted eggs, the federal government was much slower to act, despite entreaties from state officials alarmed at the growing toll.
Farms tied to Mr. DeCoster were a primary source of Salmonella enteritidis in the United States in the 1980s, when some of the first major outbreaks of human illness from the bacteria in eggs occurred, according to health officials and public records. At one point, New York and Maryland regulators believed DeCoster eggs were such a threat that they banned sales of the eggs in their states.
“When we were in the thick of it, the name that came up again and again was DeCoster Egg Farms,” said Paul A. Blake, who was head of the enteric diseases division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the 1980s, when investigators began to tackle the emerging problem of salmonella and eggs.
By the end of that decade, regulators in New York had forced Mr. DeCoster to allow salmonella testing of his farms and, along with other states, pushed the egg industry in the eastern United States to improve safety, which led to a drop in illness.
But the efforts were patchwork. For example, Iowa, where Mr. DeCoster has five farms tied to the current outbreak, required no testing.
And the federal government, at times under pressure from Congress and the industry to limit regulation, spent two decades debating national egg safety standards. New rules finally went into effect in July — too late to prevent the current round of illness.
It's not exactly been a libertarian paradise for egg farmers in America in the past twenty years, but it has been a case study in letting states lead the way in regulating -- or not -- and in letting the market handle the problem.
For some reason, consumers have not been researching which egg farms have better and worse safety standards, and then buying eggs only from the farms that meet their preferred standards.
What's happened instead is that this man, Austin J. DeCoster was free to go on a spree of murder and mass assault that is extraordinary:
In this country, the Salmonella enteritidis epidemic appeared first in New England, where Mr. DeCoster was the largest egg producer. The first spike of illness there showed up in epidemiological records in 1979. That same year, Mr. DeCoster sold his Maine operation, although it kept the name DeCoster Egg Farms. He provided financing to the new owner, the Acton Corporation, and some of his managers stayed to help run it, according to former employees of the company. Mr. DeCoster began building new egg farms in Maryland.
The first enteritidis outbreak recognized by public health officials came in July 1982, when about three dozen people fell ill and one person died at the Edgewood Manor nursing home in Portsmouth, N.H. Investigators concluded that runny scrambled eggs served at a Saturday breakfast were to blame. They traced the eggs to what the Centers for Disease Control reports referred to as a large producer in Maine; interviews with investigators confirmed that it was Mr. DeCoster’s former operation.
Eggs from the same farms were also suspected in a simultaneous outbreak that sickened some 400 people in Massachusetts.
Three years later, Mr. DeCoster bought back the Maine farms. By then, the clusters of salmonella illness had begun to spread.
In 1987, the deadly outbreak at Coler Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island occurred. Investigators determined that mayonnaise made from raw eggs had caused the outbreak. They traced the eggs to Mr. DeCoster’s Maryland farms.
After two more outbreaks were linked to DeCoster eggs the following year, New York banned Mr. DeCoster from selling eggs in the state. He was forced to agree to a rigorous program of salmonella testing on his farms in Maine and Maryland.
Michael Opitz, a poultry expert retired from the University of Maine, said that the testing found that a Maine breeder flock owned by Mr. DeCoster was infected, meaning that hens there could be passing the bacteria to their chicks, which might grow up to lay tainted eggs. Widespread contamination was also found in laying barns.
36 people ill, and one death. 400 people sickened. Imagine if this had been done by someone shouting Allahu Akbar.
But that hardly begins Austin DeCoster's history of assault on the American egg-eater:
In 1991, tests revealed more salmonella contamination at one of Mr. DeCoster’s farms in Maryland. The state quarantined the eggs, allowing them to be sold only to a plant where they could be pasteurized to kill bacteria. Mr. DeCoster challenged the order and a federal judge ruled that Maryland could not block him from shipping eggs to other states. He was still barred from selling the eggs in Maryland, and in 1992, a state judge found that he had violated the quarantine by selling eggs to a local store; Mr. DeCoster was given a suspended sentence of probation and a token fine.
Yes, the heavy hand of the state finally encroached on Austin DeCoster's entrepreneurial freedom.
Soon after interstate shipments resumed in 1992, eggs from the Maryland farm caused a salmonella outbreak in Connecticut, according to a 1992 memo from the Maryland attorney general’s office. Federal regulators insisted that Mr. DeCoster decontaminate his barns.
Dr. Roger Olson, the former state veterinarian of Maryland, said that Mr. DeCoster complained about the cost of testing and the quarantine and insisted there was little risk associated with his eggs.
“We never really got an acknowledgment that he was causing a problem,” Dr. Olson said.
Mr. DeCoster sold his Maryland farms in 1993 and focused his attention on Iowa, where he built his first laying barn in 1991. The state was attractive because of its easy access to feed ingredients. And unlike Maryland and Maine, Iowa had no requirements for salmonella monitoring.
A coincidence, no doubt.
Meanwhile, back in Maine:
Over the ensuing two decades, only Maine kept a close eye on salmonella at Mr. DeCoster’s farms. Despite some improvements, state-supervised testing has shown the persistent presence of the bacteria at several of his laying houses there, according to state records.
Maine regulators became alarmed last year when toxic salmonella showed up again in some barns that had tested clean for years. State veterinarian Dr. Donald Hoenig ordered Mr. DeCoster to hire experts to devise a better prevention program. The Maine facilities have now tested clean of enteritidis for the last 11 months.
Dr. Hoenig said he wished that the federal government had stepped in sooner to set standards for egg safety.
“The states were left on our own, with no federal oversight or guidance, to regulate this bug as best we could,” he said.
“It has been one big 20-year experiment.”
Yes. We know how many people were sickened, and killed, because federal regulations are evil.
Tens of thousands of people need not have become seriously ill. No one need have died. Half a billion eggs need not have been recalled.
DeCoster is, to be sure, sorry:
[...] The elder DeCoster, who has a long record of violating environmental regulations, immigration laws and worker rights, says in the testimony that he prays “several times each day” for the victims of the outbreak. The men “were horrified to learn that our eggs may have made people sick,” he said.
Alluding to his past record, DeCoster said his farms grew faster than they could adopt “sophisticated procedures to be sure we met all of the government requirements” but he insisted that the company has made “important strides, and I am proud of our work.”
DeCoster has a felony conviction for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants and was once named a “habitual violator” of Iowa environmental laws that barred him from expanding his operations in the state for five years.
Those "government requirements" being enforced, and made national, could have saved lives.
Even FoxNews takes a dim view of DeCoster:
[...] DeCoster's farms started gaining national attention in late 1995, when a local newspaper in Maine wrote an expose about his farm conditions.
After months of protests and a federal investigation, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined him $3.6 million for workplace violations -- investigators claimed workers were handling dead chickens and manure with their bare hands, according to a newspaper report at the time. Their living quarters were comparably squalid.
Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich said at the time the workers were being treated like animals and that the conditions were "among the worst" he'd seen.
Mercy for Animals conducted a hidden-camera investigation on Quality Egg of New England last year, which resulted in state-issued animal cruelty charges. The investigation captured footage of hens thrown in trash cans, rotting corpses in the same cages with live hens and other shocking images.
Daniel Hauff, director of investigations for Mercy for Animals, said that when animal cruelty is prevalent, worker abuse usually follows. Hauff said when state investigators raided the farm in 2009, three were hospitalized from breathing the fumes that the workers inhale every day.
"They were appalled by what they saw," he told FoxNews.com. "It is a human rights issue as well as an animal rights and animal welfare issue."
And just for kicks, there's this:
[...] But Iowa's attorney general in 2000 officially classified DeCoster a "habitual violator" of state environmental laws. Two years later, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission fined DeCoster Farms more than $1.5 million in an employment discrimination case. The case was brought on behalf of women, mostly Hispanic immigrants, who said they suffered harassment, abuse and rape at the hands of DeCoster's supervisors in Iowa, according to an EEOC statement.
The EEOC said the supervisors harassed and assaulted the women, some of whom were undocumented, and threatened to retaliate if they complained.
Additionally, immigration raids have been a fairly common occurrence at DeCoster's farms. Fifty-one workers were arrested in a 2007 raid on six of DeCoster's farms in Wright County, Iowa. The employees reportedly included juveniles. That followed a string of other raids over the past decade in which dozens of workers were arrested.
[...] How bad were conditions for 3 million laying hens at New England’s largest egg farm, Quality Egg of New England/Maine Contract Farming in Turner, Maine?
So bad that when Maine Department of Agriculture officials raided the factory farm on April 1, four Department workers themselves succumbed to the ammonia filled barns and had to be treated by doctors for burned lungs, missing work.
(No wonder Quality says its barns have “automatic feed and water systems” and “eggs are never touched by human hands.”)
For extra fun, google "teflon chicken."
Austin J. DeCoster is a one-man example of why food safety regulations, among many other regulations, need to be nationwide to be effective, and need to exist at all: to protect our lives.
Unless, of course, you're one of those people who either grows and/or hunts all their own food, or who personally checks out the conditions at every farm you get food from. In that case, never mind.
UPDATE: 9/22/10, 9 p.m.: A follow-up report on today's hearings.
[...] His son, Peter DeCoster, who is Wright County Egg’s chief operating officer, told the committee that the company failed to test its eggs for the presence of salmonella bacteria despite environmental tests that showed that his barns were contaminated because “our perception was that egg test results always would be negative,” according to his written testimony.
Who needs tests when you've got willful blindness instead?
Interestingly, earlier in the story:
[...] Indeed, Republicans in the House and in the Senate have largely supported the legislation, and one reason was provided by Representative Bob Latta, a Republican of Ohio. Mr. Latta said he had suffered food poisoning twice. “A lot of us go to a lot of events, and you eat what is put in front of you,” he said.
When the danger personally threatens you, suddenly regulation becomes a fine idea, and suddenly not all Congressional Republicans are Salmonella Republicans.