NO SUNNY SIDE FOR EGG EX­EC­U­TIVES

Ex­ec­u­tives with an Iowa op­er­a­tion linked to the sal­monella out­break can’t ex­plain why prob­lems kept crop­ping up.

Los Angeles Times - - Business - An­drew Za­jac re­port­ing from washington aza­jac@tribune.com

Pro­test­ers un­furl a ban­ner in the House hear­ing room where ex­ec­u­tives of two Iowa egg pro­duc­ers — Austin DeCoster, left, Peter DeCoster, Or­land Bethel and Duane Mangskau — pre­pare to tes­tify about the sal­monella out­break, traced to their com­pa­nies, that sick­ened hun­dreds of Amer­i­cans.

Law­mak­ers prob­ing the biggest re­call of con­tam­i­nated eggs in U.S. his­tory made lit­tle progress Wed­nes­day in get­ting to the bot­tom of the mas­sive sal­monella out­break as they ques­tioned se­nior of­fi­cials of the com­pany at the cen­ter of the prob­lem.

Austin DeCoster, head of Wright County Egg, and his son Peter DeCoster, who runs the Iowa fa­cil­ity that was the source of most of the re­called eggs, apol­o­gized “to ev­ery­one who may have been sick­ened by eat­ing our eggs” but of­fered lit­tle new in­for­ma­tion on how the sal­monella out­break oc­curred.

The DeCosters have been cited many times for health and san­i­ta­tion vi­o­la­tions. They in­sisted that steps had been taken to clean up af­ter spe­cific prob­lems were un­cov­ered. But they of­fered no ex­pla­na­tion of why prob­lems kept crop­ping up at their op­er­a­tions — first in Maine, then Mary­land and now Iowa.

Austin DeCoster, who has been an in­dus­trial-scale egg pro­ducer for at least three decades, sug­gested that he was un­able to con­trol the scale of his op­er­a­tions. “Un­for­tu­nately, we got big quite a while be­fore we stopped act­ing like we were small,” he said.

The re­cent sal­monella out­break sick­ened about 1,600 peo­ple. The re­call be­gan Aug. 13 and has high­lighted gap­ing holes in the nation’s food safety regime. De­spite the DeCosters’ long record of prob­lems, the Food and Drug Ad­min­is­tra­tion had never in­spected their Iowa fa­cil­i­ties be­fore the re­call.

An FDA in­ves­ti­ga­tion af­ter the re­call found filthy con­di­tions, in­clud­ing ro­dent holes, liq­uid ma­nure stream­ing through holes, and dead birds and mag­gots in the lay­ing houses.

Peter DeCoster dis­puted some of the FDA’s find­ings, at one point seem­ing to sug­gest that the FDA had been nit­pick­ing. Asked about a re­port that a ma­nure pile had grown so big that its weight and vol­ume pushed open a door, he said there were “only four doors like that out of 292” at the fa­cil­ity.

The DeCosters pointed to con­tam­i­nated feed as the likely cul­prit for the out why break, but FDA Deputy Com­mis­sioner Joshua Sharf­stein, tes­ti­fy­ing af­ter the egg farm­ers, said the agency wasn’t ready to sin­gle out a source for the prob­lem.

“We be­lieve there are mul­ti­ple po­ten­tial sources of

Sal­monella en­ter­i­tidis on these farms,” said Sharf­stein, adding that prob­lems with pest con­trol and ma­nure han­dling could have con­trib­uted to the spread of sal­monella within the fa­cil­ity.

Rep. Michael Burgess (RTexas) asked Sharf­stein the FDA didn’t in­spect Wright County Egg fa­cil­i­ties, given the fam­ily’s rep­u­ta­tion among reg­u­la­tors. The DeCoster op­er­a­tion has paid mil­lions of dol­lars in fines over the years, la­beled a se­rial vi­o­la­tor of en­vi­ron­men­tal laws in Iowa and briefly had its eggs banned in New York and Mary­land.

Sharf­stein said a new rule gov­ern­ing egg pro­duc­tion, which took ef­fect July 9 — too late to af­fect the re­call — will make it eas­ier to hold egg pro­duc­ers ac­count­able. The new rule sets stan­dards for ro­dent con­trol, ma­nure han­dling and re­frig­er­a­tion.

The egg rule is sep­a­rate from stalled food safety leg­is­la­tion that Sharf­stein said also was needed to ex­pand the FDA’s reg­u­la­tory tool­kit.

A sec­ond egg farmer, Or­land Bethel, owner of Hil­lan­dale Farms of Iowa, which bought feed from Wright County Egg and also was in­volved in the re­call, ap­peared at the hear­ing. But Bethel de­clined to tes­tify, as­sert­ing his 5th Amend­ment right against self-in­crim­i­na­tion.

The com­mit­tee also heard from two women, Sarah Lewis, 30, of Free­dom, Calif., and Carol Lo­bato, 77, of Lit­tle­ton, Colo., who were sick­ened from eat­ing con­tam­i­nated eggs linked to the re­call.

“I have lost my stamina. I of­ten ex­pe­ri­ence in­di­ges­tion, and it is dif­fi­cult for me to en­joy cer­tain foods,” said Lo­bato, who fell ill in midJuly.

Manuel Balce Ceneta

Manuel Balce Ceneta

TES­TI­MONY: At a House com­mit­tee hear­ing, Sarah Lewis, right, 30, of Free­dom, Calif., tells law­mak­ers of be­ing sick­ened by sal­monella-con­tam­i­nated eggs.

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