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Marler Blog

Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

The U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on Food Safety

PrisonI can hear a bit of silence in the board rooms of America.

Monday the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeals of Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster, without comment.  In April 2015 U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett sentenced the DeCosters to prison, saying they knew or should have known about the risks posed by the presence of Salmonella in and around millions of egg-laying hens. However, he allowed the DeCosters to stay free while they appealed the sentences, which they argued were unconstitutional and unreasonably harsh. The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the sentences last July and stayed any action until the U.S. Supreme Court appeal was resolved.

Now the DeCosters will now both face three month jail sentences stemming from a Salmonella outbreak caused by their Iowa egg farms in 2010.

The Salmonella outbreak ran from May 1 to Nov. 30, 2010, and prompted the recall of more than a half-billion shell eggs, the largest recall of its kind in history. And, while there were 1,939 confirmed infections, statistical models used to account for Salmonella illnesses in the U.S. suggest that the eggs may have sickened more than 62,000 people.

The family business, known as Quality Egg LLC, had already pleaded guilty to the federal felony count of bribing a USDA egg inspector and to two misdemeanors associated with the outbreak. It agreed that the LLC will pay a $6.8-million fine and the DeCosters would be fined $100,000 each, for a total of $7 million.

I am not sure if the Supreme Court read Bill Neuman’s New York Times article from September 2010 entitled, “An Iowa Egg Farmer and a History of Salmonella.” However, he should. Here are some of the highlights/lowlights:

  • DeCoster’s frequent run-ins with regulators over labor, environmental and immigrationviolations have been well cataloged. But the close connections between DeCoster’s egg empire and the spread of Salmonella in the United States have received far less scrutiny.
  • Farms tied to DeCoster were a primary source of Salmonella enteritidisin the U.S. in the 1980s, when some of the first major outbreaks of human illness from the bacteria in eggs occurred, according to health officials and public records. At one point, New York and Maryland regulators believed DeCoster eggs were such a threat that they banned sales of the eggs in their states. “When we were in the thick of it, the name that came up again and again was DeCoster Egg Farms,” said Paul A. Blake, who was head of the Enteric Diseases Division at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the 1980s, when investigators began to tackle the emerging problem of Salmonella and eggs.
  • Records released by Congressional investigatorslast week suggest that tougher oversight of Mr. DeCoster’s Iowa operations might have prevented the outbreak, which federal officials say is the largest of its type in the nation’s history, with more than 1,600 reported illnesses and probably tens of thousands more that have gone unreported.
  • According to the records, Mr. DeCoster’s farms in Iowa conducted tests from 2008 to 2010 that repeatedly showed strong indicators of possible toxic salmonella contamination in his barns. Such environmental contamination does not always spread to the eggs, and it is unclear what actions Mr. DeCoster took in response. However, when the Food and Drug Administrationinspected the farms after the recalls, officials found unsanitary conditions and the presence of Salmonella enteritidis in barns and feed.
  • The first enteritidis outbreak recognized by public health officials came in July 1982, when about three dozen people fell ill and one person died at the Edgewood Manor nursing home in Portsmouth, N.H. Investigators concluded that runny scrambled eggs served at a Saturday breakfast were to blame. They traced the eggs to what the Centers for Disease Control reports referred to as a large producer in Maine; interviews with investigators confirmed that it was Mr. DeCoster’s former operation.  Eggs from the same farms were also suspected in a simultaneous outbreak that sickened some 400 people in Massachusetts.
  • In 1987, the deadly outbreak at Coler Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island occurred. Investigators determined that mayonnaise made from raw eggs had caused the outbreak. They traced the eggs to Mr. DeCoster’s Maryland farms. On a July night in 1987, scores of elderly and chronically ill patients at Bird S. Coler Memorial Hospital in New York City began to fall violently sick with food poisoningfrom eggs tainted with salmonella.  “It was like a war zone,” said Dr. Philippe Tassy, the doctor on call as the sickness started to rage through the hospital. By the time the outbreak ended more than two weeks later, nine people had died and about 500 people had become sick. It remains the deadliest outbreak in this country attributed to eggs infected with the bacteria known as Salmonella enteritidis.
  • After two more outbreaks were linked to DeCoster eggs the following year, New York banned Mr. DeCoster from selling eggs in the state. He was forced to agree to a rigorous program of salmonella testing on his farms in Maine and Maryland.  Michael Opitz, a poultry expert retired from the University of Maine, said that the testing found that a Maine breeder flock owned by Mr. DeCoster was infected, meaning that hens there could be passing the bacteria to their chicks, which might grow up to lay tainted eggs. Widespread contamination was also found in laying barns.
  • In 1991, tests revealed more salmonella contamination at one of Mr. DeCoster’s farms in Maryland. The state quarantined the eggs, allowing them to be sold only to a plant where they could be pasteurized to kill bacteria. Mr. DeCoster challenged the order and a federal judge ruled that Maryland could not block him from shipping eggs to other states. He was still barred from selling the eggs in Maryland, and in 1992, a state judge found that he had violated the quarantine by selling eggs to a local store; Mr. DeCoster was given a suspended sentence of probation and a token fine.
  • Soon after interstate shipments resumed in 1992, eggs from the Maryland farm caused a salmonella outbreak in Connecticut, according to a 1992 memo from the Maryland attorney general’s office. Federal regulators insisted that Mr. DeCoster decontaminate his barns.  Dr. Roger Olson, the former state veterinarian of Maryland, said that Mr. DeCoster complained about the cost of testing and the quarantine and insisted there was little risk associated with his eggs.

And, then there was 2010.  I think Jack and Peter need some time away to think about this.