THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

High-risk egg farms to get first inspections

Head of firm at center of recall over salmonella apologizes at hearing

Austin DeCoster (left) and his son Peter DeCoster deflected questions about Wright County Egg farm’s health violations. Austin DeCoster (left) and his son Peter DeCoster deflected questions about Wright County Egg farm’s health violations. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
By Jenn Abelson
Globe Staff / September 23, 2010

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The US Food and Drug Administration plans to prioritize inspections of large commercial egg facilities that have a history of violations and corporate connections to repeat offenders such as egg magnate Austin “Jack’’ DeCoster, according to testimony at yesterday’s congressional hearing on the recent salmonella outbreak.

Joshua M. Sharfstein, FDA principal deputy commissioner, would not identify any specific facilities, such as producers in Maine that have ties to DeCoster, but said the agency would reach out to federal partners to prioritize the highest risk farms.

“You can hear a sigh of relief going on all over New England right now because of the record there,’’ Representative Edward J. Markey said during yesterday’s hearing in Washington. Many of the eggs in New England come from three Maine producers that have links to DeCoster.

“We want to make sure that we go in and get the answers as quickly as possible,’’ Markey added. “Mr. DeCoster clearly has no regard for regulations until the point at which he actually gets caught.’’

DeCoster, whose Wright County Egg farm in Iowa is at the center of the nation’s largest recall that sickened more than 1,600 people, apologized during the hearing before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce.

“We were horrified to learn that our eggs may have made people sick,’’ DeCoster said in his opening statement. “We apologize to everyone who may have been sickened by eating our eggs.’’

But DeCoster and his son Peter, who helps run the business, deflected questions from congressional investigators about why their farms been cited for health, labor, and sanitation violations for more than three decades. Instead, they detailed steps taken to improve the facilities over the years. At one point, the elder DeCoster explained that the operations were “complicated.’’

The FDA found a number of problems in its recent inspection in Iowa, including dead birds, manure piles up to 8 feet high, and live mice inside the hen houses.

During his testimony, Peter DeCoster said his family’s Wright County farm is making a number of changes to its operations, such as weekly testing of feed ingredients and only using hens that have been vaccinated against salmonella enteritidis.

Orland Bethel, co-owner of Ohio Fresh Eggs and owner of Hillandale Farms, the other Iowa farm linked to the recall, refused to testify yesterday and cited the Fifth Amendment. In an Aug. 30 e-mail to John Glessner, who owns Quality Egg of New England and co-owns Ohio Fresh Eggs, Bethel wrote, “Unfortunately Hillandale Farms can have absolutely no association with Jack, anywhere.’’

In the e-mail, released yesterday by the committee, Bethel added, “We have been told by Costco and WalMart that they will not be doing any business if Jack and his people have any involvement in management or ownership.’’

An executive from Ahold USA, which owns Stop & Shop, complained to Hillandale about sourcing eggs from DeCoster’s operation, according to an Aug. 25 e-mail released by the committee.

“Hillandale needs to totally disassociate itself from Jack and it has to be real,’’ Bethel told Glessner in an Aug. 31 e-mail. “Hillandale has a good business base but it will all be gone if I don’t move quickly and I will not try to deceive the public.’’

Ohio Fresh Eggs also supplies the young hens that lay eggs for the three Maine producers: Dorothy Egg Farms, Mountain Hollow Farms, and Quality Egg of New England.

Glessner, through a spokeswoman, declined to comment. Glessner is a longtime DeCoster associate who took over DeCoster Egg Farms after the business paid a record $2 million fine in the 1990s for federal workplace violations. DeCoster Egg Farms was reorganized into Quality Egg of New England and Maine Contract Farming, which is owned by DeCoster.

Congressional investigators are scrutinizing the three Maine producers because of their ties to DeCoster. The House Committee on Energy and Commerce asked DeCoster to turn over inspection records and documents related to any allegations of egg contamination, or violations of health, safety, environmental, or animal cruelty laws.

Together, the three farms provide about 100 million cartons of eggs annually to grocery stores across New England. While no eggs from the three Maine farms were linked to the recent recall, DeCoster’s companies have multiple ties to the producers, including leasing them land and equipment, providing young hens and feed, and sharing the same mailing address in Galt, Iowa, as Wright County Egg.

Earlier this summer, DeCoster’s Maine Contract Farming, which provides hen feed to all three producers, paid a $130,000 state fine for 10 counts of animal cruelty at a Turner, Maine, plant that was leased by Mountain Hollow.

“It is my fear that this recall may not be the end of the story,’’ Markey said. “There are many egg processing facilities in other states with strong corporate ties to the companies responsible for the Iowa recall that have not yet been inspected by FDA.’’

Jenn Abelson can be reached at abelson@globe.com.