Representative Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who chairs the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) appropriations subcommittee, is seeking information from the agencies about the unfolding Salmonella outbreak linked to two Iowa egg producers. Representatives Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bart Stupak (D-Mich.) have also stepped into the massive egg recall, requesting information from the same agencies and demanding documents and information from the egg company owners. Stupak’s oversight subcommittee of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce has scheduled a September 14, 2010, hearing into the matter and has apparently invited Wright County Egg owner Austin “Jack” DeCoster and Hillandale Farms owner Orland Bethel to testify.
More than a half-billion eggs, representing less than 1 percent of the U.S. egg supply, have been recalled after an upswing in Salmonella cases came to the attention of state regulators and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention beginning in May. FDA has reportedly confirmed that the same strain sickening more than 1,500 consumers in some 22 states has contaminated the two Iowa farms, locating the bacterium in two barns at Wright County Egg and in feed the company produces for its own chickens and supplies to Hillandale. According to a news source, agency officials are not certain how the feed or barns became contaminated, although they apparently suspect that the chicken feed is the source. An FDA official was quoted as saying, “This contamination can come in through numerous routes—including rodents, shared equipment, workers—so we are looking into all those possibilities in our investigation.”
The eggs that continue to be produced at the facilities will reportedly be sold as liquid eggs for use in cookies, cakes, egg substitutes, and pet food. Because liquid eggs are pasteurized, the Salmonella bacteria are destroyed, and animal science experts say they are safe to eat.
Meanwhile, plaintiffs’ lawyer William Marler has already filed two lawsuits against Quality Egg, LLC, one of DeCoster’s egg-producing companies. One suit involves an 11-year-old California girl who was allegedly hospitalized after consuming eggs in early July; the other was filed on behalf of a Wisconsin woman. Marler has reportedly indicated that his firm may already have 30 viable cases linked to the egg recall and is considering filing litigation in federal court in Iowa and consolidating the claims.
News articles about the outbreak have proliferated, covering (i) the fragmented nature of egg and poultry regulation in the United States and the fact that FDA had never once visited the suspected Iowa facilities; (ii) egg industry concentration, which has reduced the number of producers from 2,500 in 1987 to just 192 today that own some 95 percent of U.S. laying hens, a circumstance contributing to the potential for widespread outbreaks; (iii) the need for the enhanced FDA authority contained in food safety legislation currently languishing in the Senate; (iv) potential impact on exports to Russia, which only recently reopened its borders following a dispute over U.S. poultry meat processed in chlorine solutions; (v) the efficacy of chicken vaccinations that have purportedly drastically reduced the incidence of Salmonella outbreaks in Great Britain; (vi) doubts among FDA scientists that the agency can adequately protect consumers from food-borne illness in eggs; and (vii) egg-production practices that some consider inhumane and conducive to contamination.
A number of news outlets have also revealed in recent days that DeCoster has an alleged history of flouting employment, immigration, environmental, and health and safety laws. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration reportedly fined DeCoster $3.6 million in 1996 after finding workers “many of whom are immigrants from Latin America, handling manure and dead chickens with their bare hands, and living amid rats and cockroaches in the company’s trailer park.” He also apparently paid $5 million in 1999 to settle a class-action lawsuit alleging unpaid overtime for thousands of workers and paid $2.1 million in 2003 for hiring 100 undocumented immigrants. He has not evidently indicated whether he will appear before Congress, but a company spokesperson has said that the company is working to respond to the requests for information. Hinda Mitchell was quoted as saying, “We will approach it in the same forthright manner as we have in our cooperation with FDA to date.” See OMB Watch, August 20, 2010; Christian Science Monitor, August 22, 2010; DeLauro Press Release, August 23, 2010; Committee on Energy and Commerce Press Releases, August 23 and 25, 2010; The Wall Street Journal, August 23 and 26, 2010; The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, Food Safety News, The Pump Handle, Slate.com, August 24, 2010; The Washington Post, meatingplace.com, August 24 and 26, 2010; AlterNet, msnbc.com, August 25, 2010; The Hill, La Vida Locavore, Agency France Presse, August 26, 2010.