Here we go again. Another lawsuit, another company trying to get away with selling unsafe foods. Two years ago Iowa egg producer DeCoster Farms recalled half a billion – (with a B, billion) eggs because of Salmonella contamination. Unfortunately for them, it’s come to light that the farm as well as Iowa State University knew all about it for months before the massive recall was issued.
Iowa State University’s government-funded Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory knew that laying eggs produced by DeCoster Farms were likely contaminated with Salmonella as well. The lab employs 125 people, operates on a $3.2 million budget funded annually by Iowa taxpayers, and provides “third-party quality assured diagnostic services” for Austin “Jack” DeCoster’s egg farms. They discovered the problem months before the August 2010 recall.
In fact, they found salmonella in manure at several of the company’s egg-laying plants and in the internal organs of their birds. Chickens began dying at unusually high rates about four months before the August 2010 recall.
The laboratory reported the results to the producer who had requested the tests, but scientists say they had no legal or ethical obligation to alert regulators or consumers. Over 62,000 people got sick from the tainted eggs. Quite a bit more than that is actually likely; the CDC says only 1 in 30 cases of salmonella infection are actually reported. I’d say that’s 62,000 ethical reasons to fork over the information. Not to mention that it’s a government subsidized program, which in essence means every tax payer in the state was paying for the work.
The tests recently came to light during what I can only imagine will be a very protracted civil lawsuit. A federal grand jury is looking into the matter, determining the usual “what did he know and when did he know it” routine. The lawsuit claims that egg company executives misled the public by continuing to market products as safe despite potential knowledge that they were tainted. Sounds pretty accurate to me.
Lawyers for the defendants have denied their clients did anything criminal in connection to the outbreak – but what else were they going to say? Salmonella is the most common bacterial form of food poisoning. Symptoms can include diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever; no deaths were reported in the outbreak.
Rodger Main is the director of the lab who did all of the test work. He said this particular strain of salmonella – salmonella enteritidis – doesn’t have to be reported to the state or federal government. Doing so, he continued, would have violated confidentiality agreements the lab signs with food producers, who pay for the voluntary testing and decide how to react after getting results. “Our role is to provide a third-party quality assured diagnostic service, and it’s up to the client to interpret the information.”
A California cooperative, NuCal Foods, purchased some of the tainted eggs and is now suing DeCoster Farms in a federal court in California. The laboratory released its testing records in response to a subpoena from NuCal Foods. NuCal purchased millions of eggs that were later recalled resulting in lawsuits brought by its own customers after selling the tainted eggs.
The independent testing is a result of new federal guidelines that were put into place, mandating testing for bacteria during the different stages of egg production. The new rules came online in July 2010. In January of the same year, scientists from the lab collected samples from several plants. By late April 2010, scientists had discovered that 43 percent of DeCoster’s egg facilities in Iowa were positive for salmonella. Around the same time, DeCoster’s management was noticing a high mortality rate of chickens at some plants. Carcasses were sent for testing and on May 1, 2010 the ISU lab had isolated salmonella enteritidis, from the livers of hens that had died at two sites. Sites which each housed tens of thousands of birds. “If SE is in the livers of the laying hens, it is almost certainly in the eggs at this site,” he wrote in an email, calling it “a very interesting finding.”
The lab quickly relayed those findings to Decoster management. A report dated May 11 outlined that dead chickens found in three plants were contaminated with salmonella, which was found “in all locations” of their internal organs. The National Veterinary Services Laboratory in Ames, Iowa received samples for testing and confirmed salmonella contamination a month later.
What’s not clear is what DeCoster’s operations did with the information after having received the reports. Charles Hofacre, a University of Georgia scientist who was consulting on the companies’ safety program, sent a May 28 email to DeCoster executives proposing several steps to clean up the conditions, warning, “We have to get this level of SE knocked down!”
The FDA rule that went into effect in July 2010 requires producers who find salmonella in their poultry houses to either conduct additional testing over several weeks and destroy the bacteria or keep the eggs to non-food use. That appears to not have happened. When evidence of the presence of the bacteria became unavoidable the lab determined they likely could not test all the eggs that would be necessary to meet the new requirement.
DeCoster’s operations “would have to test roughly 156,000 eggs” to keep the eggs in the food stream. In an email to the company one lab scientist stated “even with new positions, I don’t see how we could accommodate such levels of testing.”
The FDA contacted DeCoster Farms on August 9, 2010 through its subsidiary Wright County Egg, after scientists tracked the illnesses in California, Colorado and Minnesota to its eggs. The company issued a recall a few days later. Hillandale Farms, also in Iowa, was also linked to illnesses and recalled its products a week later. Hillandale Farms is also tied into DeCoster Farms network of egg producers.
DeCoster himself testified in Congress the next month, stating he was horrified to learn his eggs may have been sickening Americans. The Iowa State laboratory, for its part, stated that it’s scientists acted appropriately in informing the company they had found salmonella. The lab’s accreditor, the American Association of Veterinary Laboratory Diagnosticians, says in its guidelines that laboratories must “ensure the protection of its clients’ confidential information and proprietary rights.”
“We did our job very well here,” said one of the scientist who warned of salmonella inside the birds’ organs. “We reported out the results to the owners. We have no authority to do anything beyond that.”
If sickening 62,000 Americans is doing your job very well, I clearly need to be in a new line of business.