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The Teflon Chicken Don

The Iowa attorney general called him a “habitual violator” of state laws.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich called his farms “atrocious.”

A federal investigator said it was “inconceivable” he didn’t know his farms’ conditions.

But appearances of egg and hog tycoon noir Austin “Jack” DeCoster in court have been rare — as have convictions. The “John Demjanjuk of factory farming” seldom talks to press, and reporters who have staked him out say he seems to vanish into thin air.

This month DeCoster appeared in the Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office as Maine Contract Farming, formerly DeCoster Egg Farm, pled guilty to what is believed the biggest monetary settlement for cruelty to farm animals in the nation. For failure to “provide adequate shelter and sustenance” for 10 hens at its Turner egg farm, Maine Contract Farming agreed to pay $25,000. It also agreed to pay $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture to cover costs of monitoring egg farms across the state against future animal abuse.

The civil settlement, approved in Lewiston District Court, also provides for unannounced inspections, improved staff training and hiring of a veterinarian for Maine Contract Farming’s five million hens which are held in battery cages now illegal in some countries and states. Maine Contract Farming is the largest egg farm in Maine.

“These chickens are better off now because of this agreement,” Assistant District Attorney Andrew Robinson, who spearheaded the settlement, told the Sun Journal.

Many remember the Turner raid last April when state officials and police troopers with a search warrant, some in HazMat suits, removed dead and living hens for evidence for eight full hours. Egg barns were so noxious with ammonia, four Department of Agriculture workers got sick themselves and were treated by doctors for burned lungs. OSHA launched an investigation — where were they before? — and state veterinarian Don Hoenig called the animal abuse “deplorable, horrifying and upsetting.”

Officials had been tipped off by an undercover video shot by a humane investigator for Mercy For Animals depicting live hens suffocating in garbage cans, twirled by their necks in incomplete euthanasia, kicked into manure pits to drown and hanging by their feet over conveyer belts. Footage even shows the investigator, hired as an employee, pointing out the suffering animals to DeCoster’s son Jay who says to disregard it.

Maine Contract Farming/DeCoster Egg Farm has a three decade-long complaint history from workers, neighbors, environmental officials, labor officials and humane workers.

In 1977 neighbors whose homes were infested with insects filed a $5 million lawsuit, claiming nose plugs and flyswatters should be the “new neighbor” kit.

In 1980, the DeCoster operation was charged with employing five 11-year-olds and a 9-year-old by the Labor department.

In 1988, 100,000 chickens burned to death in a fire and were left to decompose.

In 1992, DeCoster was charged by the state with indenturing migrant workers and denying them contact with teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers and labor organizers.

In 1996, federal investigators found DeCoster workers living in rat and cockroach infested housing and OSHA found their drinking water contaminated with feces. Yum.

(“The conditions in this migrant farm site are as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen,” said then Labor Secretary Robert Reich; “I thought I was going to faint and I was only there a few minutes,” said Cesar Britos, an attorney representing DeCoster workers, after entering a barn.)

And manure spills? They have occurred so regularly with DeCoster trucks, a 1994 article in the Portland Press Herald — “Chicken Manure Leaves Foul Mess; A Truck Accidentally Dumps The Raw Waste” — and 2007 article — “Manure-Truck Accident Leaves Recipient Seething — read almost identically.

Still Jack DeCoster, using Boston spinmeister George Regan for public relations, eluded criminal convictions and farm closures and even expanded his empire from egg farms in Maine to pig farms in Iowa in the 1990s.

But his Teflon days could be changing. Beside the cruelty breakthrough, last week’s settlement might be the first time states have tapped abusers for the future costs of monitoring them.

The $100,000 will fund increased inspections, “in a time of limited budgets [when] our staff size has been limited,” said Christine Fraser, a Department of Agriculture veterinarian who was instrumental in the settlement, to the Sun Journal. “If we are out there more often, we’ll be able to stop things before they get this bad.”

Nathan Runkle, executive director of Chicago-based Mercy For Animals agrees. “Over the next five years, if Maine Contract Farming fails the unannounced inspections it has agreed to, criminal charges will likely be filed.”

And Maine Contract Farming? Jack DeCoster’s son, Jay, who is operations manager said, “We are pleased to put this matter behind us so we can focus on the successful operation of our farm.”

It was not a new statement.

MARTHA ROSENBERG can be reached at: martharosenberg@sbcglobal.net

WORDS THAT STICK

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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).

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