Phil Brasher, Dean of Ag writers and Willy Neuman of the New York Times could not have written stories as well timed as the ones that dropped into my inbox just as I was landing in D.C. from Seattle, via Wichita and Atlanta to attend tomorrow afternoons hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Investigations (third or forth I have attended).
Mr. Brasher wrote, “Testimony: DeCosters to apologize for egg outbreak.” Apparently Mr. Brasher got a pre-release of the DeCosters’ testimony where he is going to “apologize … to victims of a salmonella outbreak and pledge not to resume selling fresh eggs until their farms are free from disease, …” He will go on: “While we always believed we were doing the right thing, it is now very clear that we must do more,” said Peter DeCoster, who is chief operating officer of the Wright County Egg operations, which his father owns.”
However, please do not forget that “[t]he Food and Drug Administration found numerous unsanitary conditions on the farms, including the presence of mice, a leading source of salmonella in egg farms, and numerous entry points for rodents. Records showed that the DeCoster egg farms tested positive 73 times in two years for the bacteria strain linked to the illnesses.”
But even if an apology for sickening some 1,600 and causing the recall of 550,000,0000 eggs had any meaning, Mr. Neuman’s story, “An Egg Farmer and a History of Salmonella,” renders a DeCoster apology meaningless. As Mr. Neuman catalogues:
Mr. DeCoster’s frequent run-ins with regulators over labor, environmental and immigration violations have been well cataloged. But the close connections between Mr. DeCoster’s egg empire and the spread of salmonella in the United States have received far less scrutiny. …
Farms tied to Mr. DeCoster were a primary source of Salmonella enteritidis in the United States 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. …
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.
Three years later, Mr. DeCoster bought back the Maine farms. By then, the clusters of salmonella illness had begun to spread.
In 1987, the deadly outbreak [500 sickened with nine deaths] 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.
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. …
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.
You get the picture. An apology is simply not enough. It will be interesting to see him “eye to eye” tomorrow.