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Troubles mount for Iowa firm as egg recall expands

August 19, 2010

The Iowa livestock industry giant that's being blamed for a multistate salmonella outbreak linked to its eggs has a long history of environmental, immigration and labor violations.

An egg recall first announced last week was expanded Wednesday to 380 million eggs - the equivalent of nearly 32 million dozen-egg cartons. Hundreds of people have been sickened in a salmonella outbreak linked to eggs in three states and possibly more.

Wright County Egg in Galt, part of the DeCoster family agribusiness operations, had shipped the eggs over a three-month period to wholesalers, distribution centers and food service companies in California, Illinois, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa. The companies distribute eggs nationwide.

Wright County Egg is being sued for allegedly causing the salmonella poisoning of a Wisconsin woman, and a dozen more lawsuits linked to the outbreak are in the works, said Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in food poisonings.

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said this week that it had seen a fourfold increase in the usual number of cases of salmonella enteritidis, a strain associated with eggs. The CDC said it received reports of about 200 enteritidis cases every week during late June and early July. More than 260 illnesses in California have been linked to the outbreak. Minnesota has tied at least seven salmonella illnesses to the eggs.

No deaths have been reported, said Christopher Braden, a CDC epidemiologist.

The DeCoster operations have had several violations:

- The founder, Austin Jackson DeCoster, pleaded guilty to federal immigration charges in 2003 and paid a record $2.1 million in penalties.

- In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission imposed a $1.5 million penalty for mistreatment of female workers, including charges of rape, sexual harassment and other abuse.

- In 2001, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that DeCoster, a repeat violator of state environmental laws, could finance, but not build, hog confinement operations for his son, Peter DeCoster, who is now closely involved with the Wright County egg operations.

- Earlier this year, the elder DeCoster paid a fine to settle state animal cruelty charges against his egg operations in Maine.

Federal authorities have been on the DeCoster farms since last week investigating its henhouses and testing eggs to determine the source of the contamination, said Howard Magwire, an attorney for the United Egg Producers, a trade group that includes the DeCoster operations in its membership.

"The company itself is testing many thousands of eggs from the farms to see if they can find anything," he said.

He said the company had "erred on the side of safety" by making the recall as large as it is.

A woman who answered the phone at a number in Galt listed for both Wright County Egg and DeCoster Farms of Iowa referred a reporter to the government media representatives. They did not return phone calls.

A phone message for Peter DeCoster also was not returned.

The lawsuit filed in a state court in Kenosha County, Wis., alleges that Tanja Dzinovic was sickened in June after eating a cobb salad that included hard-boiled eggs. Tests showed she had been infected with salmonella enteritidis, according to the lawsuit. She was released from the hospital but continues to suffer from gastrointestinal symptoms, the lawsuit said.

State and local officials also are investigating salmonella cases that could be linked to the DeCoster eggs in Arizona, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, North Carolina, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Texas.

Eggs were a major source of salmonella illnesses in the 1990s, but outbreaks had declined significantly over the past decade as farms took a number of biosecurity measures and other steps to prevent contamination. Last month, the Food and Drug Administration imposed mandatory safety regulations, including egg testing requirements, that many farms had already been following, according to industry experts.

"This outbreak really comes as a surprise, and it really seems to be going against the overall trend," said Caroline Smith DeWaal of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group.

Kevin Vinchattle, executive director of the Iowa Egg Council, a producer trade group, said other egg farms were watching the latest case. The DeCoster operation is not a member of the group.

"Whatever is happening with this particular investigation, we're concerned about understanding what has happened so things like this don't happen in the future," he said.

Eggs can become contaminated via rodents or unsanitary conditions in henhouses. The Food and Drug Administration last month imposed new regulations on egg farms to prevent salmonella contamination. The rules include regular testing.

The recalled eggs were packaged under a variety of names, including Lucerne and Albertsons, brands of supermarket giants Safeway and Albertsons, respectively.

Dutch Farms of Chicago said Wednesday that Wright County Eggs "used unauthorized egg cartons to package and sell eggs under the Dutch Farms name without Dutch Farms' knowledge." The eggs were distributed to Walgreens stores in Iowa and six other states.

Hy-Vee Inc. said on its website that it did not sell the eggs.

More on this outbreak: Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms Egg Salmonella Outbreak

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