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Out of Control Egg Producer Flouts Regulations: Consumers Deal with 500 Million Salmonella-Tainted Eggs

This problem extends beyond the egg industry and is typical of nearly every sector of food and agriculture.

The recent recall of 500 million eggs due to salmonella should surprise no one.

The official term agribusiness will use to refer to Austin "Jack" DeCoster, the owner of the farm that produced the tainted eggs, is "bad apple." That's what they call anyone who gets caught for outrageous ethical breaches in agriculture. Farmers who are caught abusing their animals and workers, committing flagrant environmental crimes, and selling record amounts of tainted food are all "bad apples." The implication is that everyone else, those who haven't made front-page headlines for their bad behavior, would never dream of doing such a thing on their farms.

The State of Iowa's term for DeCoster is "habitual violator." He earned the title a decade ago after repeatedly flooding Iowa's waterways with massive amounts of hog manure. In Iowa, habitual violators of water quality laws are fined up to $25,000 per day per violation (compared to the normal $5,000 per day per violation) and are not allowed to build or expand any "animal feeding operation structures." Apparently the increased fines weren't much of a deterrent for DeCoster.

DeCoster's violations of the law began long before he got to Iowa. By 1996, he had built his egg operation in Maine to one with five million hens producing 23 million eggs per week. And he had earned the attention of Clinton's Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, who said that DeCoster's workers were treated like "animals." The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined DeCoster $3.6 million after finding workers "handling manure and dead chickens with their bare hands, and living amid rats and cockroaches in the company's trailer park."

DeCoster continued, establishing operations to states with larger egg industries, Iowa and Ohio, and racking up legal violations. DeCoster's violations are varied, making it clear that he has little regard for any law that might stand between him and profit. Despite his lack of regard for the law, he was one of the largest donors opposing California's Proposition 2 in 2008, which requires that egg-laying hens are given enough space to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs, and turn around freely. Once Proposition 2 became law, would he bother following it anyway? Or would it become one more pesky fine to pay if and when he is caught?

Yet none of this led regulators to shut DeCoster down entirely. Nor did it lead businesses to avoid buying his eggs. The 500 million eggs were sold across the country under numerous brand names in at least 22 states: Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph's, Boomsma's, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms, Kemps, James Farms, Glenview, and Pacific Coast. The consequence of their negligence, to date, are at least 1,300 cases of salmonella, although authorities note that for each confirmed case, there are an estimated 30 to 38 more that go unreported.

How did salmonella get into the eggs? Thus far, all anyone knows is that the chicks came from a Minnesota firm certified to be free of salmonella. Some speculate that the source of salmonella could be the hens' feed. According to Marion Nestle, "If the problem was with the feed, the hens picked up salmonella from eating it. Once eaten, salmonella gets into the hens' digestive and egg tracts and gets deposited into the eggs."

Regardless of how it occurred, this recall should force us to examine the food system that allowed it to occur.

Eggs are actually highly regulated -- but none of the regulations, until recently, ensured that eggs were free of salmonella. One agency of the USDA, the Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), grades shell eggs based on size and appearance; another agency, the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) regulates the health of the hens (but not the eggs); and yet a third agency, the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS), regulates the safety of liquid, dried and frozen egg products. The FDA, on the other hand, regulates the safety of shell eggs. A decade ago, the FDA began writing a rule to keep salmonella out of eggs, but never finalized it until last year. It went into effect July 9, 2010. The tainted eggs began to flood the market in May. Nestle says, "The FDA's shell egg rules ... would, if followed, have prevented this problem because the rules require testing the flocks. If they test positive, their eggs would have had to be diverted into some cooked product."

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