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Marler Blog Providing Commentary on Food Poisoning Outbreaks & Litigation

Chickens and Chicken Feed link Quality Egg to Wright County Egg and Hillandale Salmonella Outbreak

chicken-feed-bucket.jpgMARY CLARE JALONICK, of AP, (A.K.A., “the egg gal,”) confirmed this morning what everyone speculated, that “both farms (Hillandale and Wright County Egg) are linked to businessman Austin “Jack” DeCoster, who has been cited for numerous health, safety and employment violations over the years.” She goes further:

DeCoster owns Wright County Egg, the original farm that recalled 380 million eggs Aug. 13 after they were linked to more than 1,000 reported cases of salmonella poisoning. Another of his companies, Quality Egg supplies young chickens and feed to both Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, the second farm that recalled another 170 million eggs a week later.

Her other story, “Farms recalling eggs share suppliers, other ties,” just hit the wire. Here is an interesting perspective (if I do not say so myself):

The salmonella outbreak has raised questions about federal inspections of egg farms. The FDA oversees inspections of shell eggs, while the Agriculture Department is in charge of inspecting other egg products.

William D. Marler, a Seattle attorney for a person who filed suit alleging illness from tainted eggs in a salad at a restaurant in Kenosha, Wis., said Sunday his firm has been retained by two-dozen families and was representing a woman who was hospitalized in California.

“The history of ignoring the law makes the sickening of 1,300 and the forced recall of 550 million eggs shockingly understandable,” Marler said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. “You have to wonder where the USDA and FDA inspectors were.”

As Ms. Jalonick documents, DeCoster is no stranger to controversy in his food and farm operations:

– In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay $2 million in fines to settle citations brought in 1996 for health and safety violations at DeCoster’s farm in Turner, Maine. Then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich said conditions were “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop.” He cited unguarded machinery, electrical hazards, exposure to harmful bacteria and other unsanitary conditions.

– In 2000, Iowa designated DeCoster a “habitual violator” of environmental regulations for problems that included hog manure runoff into waterways. The label made him subject to increased penalties and prohibited him from building new farms.

– In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a more than $1.5 million settlement of an employment discrimination lawsuit against DeCoster Farms on behalf of Mexican women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment, including rape, abuse and retaliation by some supervisory workers at DeCoster’s Wright County plants.

– In 2007, 51 workers were arrested during an immigration raid at six DeCoster egg farms. The farm had been the subject of at least three previous raids.

– In June 2010, Maine Contract Farming – the successor company to DeCoster Egg Farms – agreed in state court to pay $25,000 in penalties and to make a one-time payment of $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture over animal cruelty allegations that were spurred by a hidden-camera investigation by an animal welfare organization.

So, USDA, FDA – who was watching the hen house?


    THE FOX ?

  • John Munsell

    My wife Kathryn and I discussed this egg/salmonella issue at length today, and are unsure what extra measures can be taken by farms which raise chickens, as well as by egg farms. Admittedly, Salmonella originate from within animals’ intestines, and by extension the pathogens are thus resident in fecal material flushed out of those intestines. We know that E.coli proliferate in beef finished out in confined animal feedlots, because the animals walk around in and share manure sluffed off by all their feedlot mates. At beef slaughter facilities, carcass contamination can result from manure transferring from the hide onto exposed carcasses, or from perforated intestines spewing intestinal content onto beef carcasses. But beef don’t lay eggs
    So, how does chicken intestinal bacteria get transferred from live chickens onto egg shell exteriors, or INSIDE eggs? And, how can the producers of live chickens and/or eggs implement measures to prevent, eliminate or reduce the incidence of Salmonella in eggs?
    We assume that enteric bacteria like Salmonella can be deposited onto eggs’ exterior if chickens drop eggs onto equipment which was previously contaminated with chicken fecal material. If our assumption is correct, what measures are available to egg producers to ensure that eggs drop into a sanitary environment? Please, no theoretical answers here, but provide some real life, viable alternatives. What kinds of corrective actions do egg producers have at their disposal to provide such sanitary conditions for egg conveyors or whatever they use to collect and transport eggs?
    Secondly, how does Salmonella get INSIDE of eggs? More importantly, what kinds of corrective actions are available in this scenario?
    If no meaningful corrective actions are available, how can we hold egg manufacturers liable?
    Lastly, we presume if chickens were not raised in confined operations, but allowed to roam free to eliminate the problem of wallowing in a confined pen filled with chicken manure, we would expect the intestines of such chickens would carry a smaller load of salmonella. We assume this would then diminish the prevalence of Salmonella in or on eggs. Are we correct? If so, how can we hold egg producers accountable for the presence of Salmonella if the egg producers unwittingly purchase from their suppliers live laying hens already carrying invisible Salmonella bacteria?
    The future price of “free range” chickens will be grossly higher than the cost consumers currently pay. Factory farming of chickens and eggs dramatically reduces the cost of both live chicken and eggs. My perception is that consumers will rebel at a huge price hike, and, that they would rather accept the minimal risk involved in purchasing chicken meat and eggs produced under current manufacturing protocol. I know, this sounds callous and contrary to public health imperatives. But, we must also face reality. We all drive cars, in spite of the fact that thousands of Americans die in car accidents annually, and countless others injured. We are willing to accept the risk.
    So, would someone personally familiar with egg production, microbiology, and corrective actions answer these questions? Yup, I’m in Poultry 101, but then, most everyone else is too.
    One concern I have is that whatever corrective actions are available to producers to ship consistently safe eggs into commerce will be prohibitively expensive, a cost which can only be implemented by the very largest of egg plants. Medium-sized and small egg plants would be shuttered, adding thousands to our unemployed rolls, exacerbating the exodus of humans and production facilities from rural America, and increase our dependency on imported eggs. I’m sure China, as well as third world nations would love to fill our orders with their eggs which are produced in the absence of labor laws and environmental restraints. It would further worsen our already horrid balance of trade.
    I’m hoping someone can provide answers to these questions, which are basic.
    John Munsell

  • Jacqueline Robison

    Where did the feed the chickens are being fed originate?

  • C.C.

    As a poultry scientist and food scientist, I wish the media (and blogs like this) would do a better job educating the general population of how to prevent illness from pathogens rather than perpetuating the hysteria that many consumers are now feeling. The US food industry is the safest and cleanest in the world, yet this has led to an environment in which consumers no longer bear the responsibility of proper food preparation and good hygiene. Just because a small population of eggs (or meat or poultry) may test positive for a naturally occurring bacteria, why is our reaction to pull all the food from the shelves and dispose of it rather than educating consumers how to use it safely?

    I just want to make a few points in response to a previous post:
    * All avian species (chickens included) have ONE common tract by which fecal material, urine and eggs exit the body. Sometimes the fecal material (combined with urine) will exit simultaneously with the eggs resulting in contamination.
    * Salmonella (and other pathogenic bacteria such as campylobacter) are commonly found in poultry manure as well as in normal garden soil and other places in the environment
    * Salmonella is easily killed with cooking temperatures >140 F and can be cleansed from hands and utensils with proper washing (warm water, soap and scrubbing). Simply, stated, even if your eggs/meat are contaminated, proper preparation and good hygiene can eliminate any chances of getting sick – even if 100% of your eggs are contaminated!
    * Bird welfare aside, I hesitate to buy into the theory that free range eggs are a safer alternative to conventional eggs. Conventional egg production is typically conducted in cages that are off the ground where eggs are shuttled immediately from the hen through a conveyor system never contacting soil or earth. However, free range eggs are often laid in traditional nests or on the ground and will often come into contact with soil and nesting materials and would theoretically have a higher potential of being contaminated by fecal material as they remain under the birds for a time before being collected.

    While I strongly urge consumers to become more knowledgeable of basic food preparation techniques and take more responsibility for their own food safety, I am not condoning sloppy manufacturing procedures on the part of the producers/growers. However, having been in the food industry for the past 12 years and working for some of the biggest names I can vouch first hand the degree to which the industry has gone to ensure the food you buy is the safest in the world. I only wish consumers would be expected to bear a portion of the responsibility.