AP reports that the federal appeals court upheld jail sentences Wednesday for two egg industry executives whose Iowa-based company caused a nationwide salmonella outbreak in 2010.
In a long-awaited decision, the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals backed three-month jail sentences issued last year to Austin “Jack” DeCoster and son Peter DeCoster.
U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett ordered the jail time last year, citing a “litany of shameful conduct” that happened at their large egg-production company, Quality Egg. But Bennett allowed them their freedom while they appealed the sentences, which the DeCosters argued were unconstitutional and unreasonable for the misdemeanor crimes to which they pleaded guilty.
Business groups, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers, took up their cause.
But in a 2-1 decision, an appeals panel ruled that the DeCosters “are liable for negligently failing to prevent the salmonella outbreak” and that jail time is appropriate.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked 1,939 illnesses to the outbreak, but officials estimate that up to 56,000 people may have been sickened. Investigators argued the DeCosters knew their Iowa egg facilities were at risk for salmonella contamination before the outbreak.
Farms tied to DeCoster were a primary source of Salmonella enteritidis in 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 investigators last 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 Administration inspected 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 poisoning from 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.
I think Jack and Peter need some time away to think about this.