DeCoster Egg Farm Knew About Widespread Contamination Before Salmonella Outbreak

petri_dishes_salmonellaFIC blogged a couple weeks ago about the criminal probe against egg tycoon Jack DeCoster regarding the 2010 Salmonella outbreak. A lawsuit filed by NuCal Foods – which purchased millions of eggs from DeCoster's Iowa farm that it later had to recall – alleged that DeCoster and his companies knowingly sold tainted product and kept information from the public.

Well, it turns out he knew a lot, according to newly released evidence from an Iowa State University facility hired by DeCoster to test for contamination.

From the Associated Press:

ISU's Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory found salmonella in manure at several Iowa egg-laying plants and in the internal organs of their birds, which were dying at unusually high rates, about four months before the August 2010 recall of 550 million eggs linked to the outbreak, records show.

The laboratory reported the results to the producer who had requested the tests, but scientists say they had no legal or ethical obligation to alert regulators or consumers. The tests have recently been made public in a civil lawsuit, while a federal grand jury looks into whether egg company executives misled the public by continuing to market products as safe despite potential knowledge that they were tainted. 

How could informing people that eggs they’ve purchased come from a farm with serious Salmonella problems not be an ethical obligation? As is typical among the food and agricultural industries, "proprietary information" has seemingly trumped public health once again. The lab, despite discovering that samples from 43 percent of DeCoster's hen houses in Iowa tested positive for Salmonella and that the bacteria found in hens' livers meant it was "almost certainly in the eggs," wasn't duty-bound to report this to the government. In fact, doing so would supposedly violate confidentiality agreements! What do they have to hide? By the looks of it, a lot.

Whistleblowers in the food system face enough intimidation and other obstacles already when it comes to trying to bring food safety threats to light. With these additional industry-friendly loopholes, it's no wonder DeCoster wasn't held accountable before thousands of people became sick. These horrific findings of contamination only came out due to the subpoena from NuCal Foods, almost two years later.

A point of contention is whether DeCoster, knowing the lab results, complied with a new FDA egg rule that went into effect in July 2010 – requiring producers who detect Salmonella to initiate additional testing and destroy the bacteria or divert the eggs to non-food use. NuCal's lawsuit argues that he did not abide the rule, saying DeCoster "hid the filthy conditions at their farms so that they could continue to profit."

This is why transparency is so important along the food chain. Consumers put their health in the hands of companies that raise tens of thousands of food-producing animals in one facility. If they mean to prevent future outbreaks, adequate outlets for truth-telling insiders are indispensable.

Sarah Damian is New Media Associate for the Government Accountability Project, the nation's leading whistleblower protection and advocacy organization.


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