Inquiry on egg farms in Maine
Ties to tainted Iowa operation
Three egg producers in Maine that supply many New England grocery stores are under scrutiny by congressional investigators because of their ties to Austin “Jack’’ DeCoster, whose Iowa farm was at the center of the recent egg recall.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce has requested that DeCoster turn over inspection records and documents related to any allegations of egg contamination, or violations of health, safety, environmental, or animal cruelty laws at Dorothy Egg Farms, Mountain Hollow Farms, and Quality Egg of New England. Together, the three Maine farms provide about 100 million cartons of eggs a year to grocery stores throughout the region.
“The companies appear to be linked to DeCoster, but we don’t know what role, if any, they played in the recall,’’ said Karen Lightfoot, a spokeswoman for the congressional panel. This summer more than 1,500 people were sickened by eggs suspected of being contaminated by salmonella, prompting a major recall by two farms in Iowa. No illnesses were reported in New England.
Many supermarket chains in the region have long assured nervous consumers that their eggs do not come from DeCoster farms, which have a history of labor and environmental violations. But by stocking eggs from Dorothy Egg, Mountain Hollow, and Quality Egg farms, the grocery stores have — wittingly or not — sold eggs produced by businesses with ties to the DeCoster empire.
While no eggs from the three Maine farms were linked to the recent recall, the producers have multiple connections to DeCoster’s companies, leasing land and equipment, using the same hen and feed suppliers, and even sharing the same mailing address in Galt, Iowa, with Wright County Egg, the DeCoster farm at the center of the recent salmonella outbreak.
“It’s a sophisticated business enterprise. But when you check all these entities, they ultimately all come back to Jack DeCoster,’’ said Andrew Robinson, an assistant district attorney for the Androscoggin County district attorney’s office who prosecuted a case this year involving animal cruelty at a Maine plant that was owned by a DeCoster firm and leased by Mountain Hollow.
DeCoster, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment.
Area supermarkets said they are unaware of major ties between DeCoster and the three Maine farms.
Officials at Shaw’s Supermarkets and Stop & Shop both said this week they do not buy eggs from DeCoster. Yet a Globe reporter found egg cartons in Boston area locations of both stores from the Maine farms with close connections to DeCoster, as well as at Market Basket and Hannaford Supermarkets. These eggs are often sold under store labels.
Mike Norton, a spokesman for Hannaford, said the company has asked suppliers to avoid DeCoster eggs for more than a decade. The chain knows about financing agreements between DeCoster and the other Maine farms, but is not aware of any close operational ties, such as producers who get hens from DeCoster businesses. That “would be a point of discussion’’ for Hannaford with its suppliers, he said.
“We obviously are going to monitor closely and if it turns out these relationships run deep operationally, it will come as no surprise that we are looking for different suppliers,’’ Norton said.
Meanwhile, David Radlo of Radlo Foods in Watertown, which supplies many eggs for grocery stores across New England, including Hannaford, said he was told there was no “operational management relationship’’ between DeCoster and Dorothy Egg. Radlo owned Mountain Hollow, one of the farms under federal scrutiny, and sold it to Dorothy Egg several years ago.
Julia Lough, of Dorothy Egg Farms and its sister company, Mountain Hollow, said these businesses should not be part of the federal investigation.
“We’re solely operated. That will come out. But until then, you’re guilty by association,’’ she said. “It’s not helping our business.’’
But Hinda Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Quality Egg of New England, confirmed, “there are some business and leasing agreements between the egg farms’’ in Maine, but declined to discuss the details of the relationships.
DeCoster is expected to testify on Capitol Hill next week about the recall, the largest egg recall in US history. The two Iowa farms believed to be the source of the contaminated eggs are already under investigation by the US Food and Drug Administration.
The House Committee on Energy and Commerce is examining the salmonella outbreak and the adequacy of efforts to ensure the safety and security of the nation’s food supply. In addition to DeCoster, Michael R. Taylor, the FDA’s deputy commissioner for food, and Orland Bethel, president of Hillandale Farms of Iowa, have been invited to testify.
The panel’s expansive request for records from DeCoster suggests it will also investigate the broader empire for links to the recall, including a look at DeCoster’s holdings in New England.
DeCoster’s anchor operation in Maine — the farm that once bore his name, and is still most often associated with him — is located in the small town of Turner. It is there that his public controversy began when, in the mid-1990s, the egg magnate paid a record $2 million settlement for federal workplace violations, including unsafe and unsanitary living and working conditions.
After paying the settlement in 1997, DeCoster reorganized the Turner firm into two companies without his family name: Maine Contract Farming, which raises the hens, and Quality Egg of New England, one of the trio of Maine producers whose ties to him are being examined anew.
The other two — Dorothy Egg Farms, based in Winthrop, and Mountain Hollow Farms, in Leeds — entered the scene several years later as they began leasing land and equipment from DeCoster, according to a financing statement filed with the Maine secretary of state.
Records from the Maine Department of Agriculture also show that all three farms get their young hens shipped in from Ohio Fresh Eggs, a commercial farm in which DeCoster is a big investor. John Glessner, a longtime associate of DeCoster, co-owns Ohio Fresh Eggs and he took over as owner of Quality Egg of New England after DeCoster reorganized the business.
Another connection: Maine officials said the local farms share feed from a mill in Leeds that is run by DeCoster’s Maine Contract Farming. In 2003, the FDA sent a warning letter to DeCoster about various problems at the Leeds mill, including “the failure to conduct adequate cleanout procedures, which could result in unsafe contamination,’’ according to a copy of the letter.
Feed is considered a possible source of contamination during this summer’s outbreak. A feed mill in Iowa where salmonella was detected is part of the DeCoster empire.
That all three Maine producers — Dorothy, Mountain Hollow, and Quality Egg of New England — share a mailing address with DeCoster’s Iowa operation is reflected in financing statements filed with the secretaries of state in Maine and Iowa. The three farms are listed together as debtors in these documents, along with DeCoster and Maine Contract Farming. Federal investigators also are examining Maine Contract Farming as part of its investigation into the recall.
Lough, of Dorothy Egg and Mountain Hollow, said she did not know details about the financing agreements or why the businesses listed a mailing address in Iowa that matched a DeCoster farm in Galt, Iowa.
Adding to the controversy surrounding DeCoster are charges of animal cruelty. Earlier this summer, Maine Contract Farming paid the state about $130,000 for 10 civil counts of animal cruelty at a Turner plant that was owned by Maine Contract Farming and leased by Mountain Hollow, according to Robinson, the assistant district attorney for Androscoggin County who prosecuted the case.
“There’s certainly a relationship between all these entities,’’ Robinson said. “It appears there may be some business benefit to having multiple entities responsible for different aspects of the egg farms.’’
Jenn Abelson can be reached at email@example.com.