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Jack DeCoster Accepts Plea Deal For Salmonella-Tainted Eggs

Justice Catches Up to the “Teflon Egg Don”

by MARTHA ROSENBERG

He was known as the “Teflon Egg Don.” For more than 35 years the egg farms associated with Austin “Jack” DeCoster have been accused of health and safety violations and worker, environmental and animal abuses but the charges have never stuck. Now, DeCoster and his son Peter are expected to plead guilty to introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce and causing a nationwide salmonella outbreak in 2010 in the US. Their company, Quality Egg LLC, has agreed to pay $6.8 million in fines for selling old eggs with false labels for years and is expected to plead guilty to bribing a USDA inspector to approve sales of poor quality eggs. The DeCosters may also face jail time and be ordered to pay restitution to victims.

How bad was the salmonella outbreak? Half a billion salmonella contaminated eggs were recalled in August of 2010–380 million from the DeCoster-owned Wright County Egg in Iowa and 170 million from the DeCoster-linked Hillandale Farms, also in Iowa. Just when everyone thought the danger was over, 288,000 more eggs were recalled from the Jackson, MI-based Cal-Maine, an egg operation also connected to DeCoster-linked Ohio Fresh Eggs, two months later.

2010 was not the first time DeCoster eggs sickened humans. As early as 1982, one person had died and thirty-six were sickened in New Hampshire and 400 were sickened in  Massachusetts from eggs traced to DeCoster owned farms. Five years later, in 1987, nine people died and 500 were sickened in New York from eggs traced to DeCoster owned farms, according to the New York Times but the egg don was allowed to continue to do business.

By 1996, DeCoster had been cited for polluting groundwater with 100,000 rotting carcasses of birds he let perish in a fire, improper asbestos removal, housing egg workers in cockroach-infested fire-trap trailers, and hiring children as young as nine. Nonetheless he expanded his egg empire into Iowa, Ohio and Maryland.

In April of 2009, Maine state agriculture officials raided the DeCoster-run Quality Egg of New England and Maine Contract Farming (formerly the DeCoster Egg Farm) on the basis of videos depicting egregious conditions. For eight hours, law enforcement and agriculture officials collected hens from the reeking barns which were so full of ammonia from the birds’ droppings, four department workers were treated by doctors for burned lungs.

Finally, in 2010, Jack DeCoster was called to appear before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce because of 1,600 cases of salmonella linked to his operations. “When you testify before the Committee,” wrote Rep. Bart Stupak (D-MI), serving as Chair, “we ask that you come prepared to explain why your facilities tested potentially positive for Salmonella Enteritidis contamination on so many occasions, what steps you took to address the contamination identified in these test results, and whether you shared these results with FDA or other federal or state food safety officials.”

Appearing with his son Peter, DeCoster told the federal lawmakers he was sorry for making people sick but that the company had grown too big too soon. Right.

Government officials leapt to his defense. “One of the things I’ve always said about DeCoster is that when there’s a problem at his facilities, he acts fast,” said Kevin Buskins of the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg reminded consumers it is their job to cook out salmonella germs. The important thing, she said, is to not eat your eggs with, “runny egg yolks for mopping up with toast.”

Large egg operations are a blight on the environment, animals, workers, surrounding neighbors and food consumers and DeCoster’s have been among the worst. Luckily justice has caught up with the Teflon Egg Don.

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).