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Iowa egg company had repeat violations

DeCoster owns Wright County Egg in Iowa, which last week recalled 380 million eggs distributed nationwide. DeCoster owns Wright County Egg in Iowa, which last week recalled 380 million eggs distributed nationwide. (Abdullah Pope/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Alec MacGillis
Washington Post / August 22, 2010

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WASHINGTON — The Iowa egg producer that federal officials say is at the center of a salmonella outbreak and recalls of more than a half-billion eggs has repeatedly paid fines and settled complaints over health and safety violations and allegations such as mistreating hens and maintaining a “sexually hostile work environment.’’

In the past 20 years, according to the public record, the DeCoster family operation, one of the 10 largest egg producers in the country, has withstood a string of reprimands, penalties, and complaints about its performance in several states.

In June, for instance, the family agreed to pay a $34,675 fine stemming from allegations of animal cruelty against hens in its 5 million-bird Maine operation. An animal rights group used a hidden camera to document hens suffocating in garbage cans, twirled by their necks, kicked into manure pits to drown, and hanging by their feet over conveyer belts.

Hinda Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the company, declined to answer questions about its record. “Wright County Egg recognizes the significant consumer concern about the potential incidence of salmonella enteritidis,’’ she said. “That is why we continue to work cooperatively with FDA after our voluntary recalls . . . of shell eggs.’’

DeCoster owns Wright County Egg in Iowa, which last week recalled 380 million eggs distributed nationwide. A federal investigation into 26 outbreaks of salmonella enteritidis, the second-leading cause of food-borne illness, found that 15 of the outbreaks pointed to Wright County Egg.

The DeCoster family also has close ties to Hillandale Farms of Iowa, which on Friday recalled 170 million eggs distributed to 14 states in the Midwest and West after scientists in Minnesota linked one salmonella outbreak to Hillandale.

Wright County Egg and Hillandale share supplies of young chickens and feed, and the DeCoster family is the major backer of Ohio Fresh Eggs, which is co-owned by Hillandale’s founder.

Federal and state officials are still trying to pinpoint the cause of the outbreaks, which started in May. But if the source of the problem is confirmed as the DeCoster operation, it would represent the biggest blow yet to the family empire.

As family legend has it, the company got its start in Turner, Maine, when Austin “Jack’’ DeCoster was 15: His father died, leaving him responsible for his siblings and the family’s 125 chickens. Now in his 70s, he runs the company with his sons Peter, in Iowa, and Jay, in Maine.

As the family’s holdings have expanded, so has the list of allegations. The list includes:

■ In 1996, DeCoster was fined $3.6 million for health and safety violations at the family’s Turner egg farm.

■ In 1999, it paid $5 million to settle wage-and-hour claims involving 3,000 workers.

■ In 2001, DeCoster Farms of Iowa settled, for $1.5 million, a complaint brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that DeCoster had subjected 11 undocumented female workers from Mexico to a “sexually hostile work environment,’’ including sexual assault and rape by supervisors.

■ Also in 2001, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that DeCoster was a “repeat violator’’ of state environmental laws.

■ In 2002, DeCoster Egg Farms of Maine paid $3.2 million to settle a lawsuit filed in 1998 by Mexican workers alleging discrimination in housing and working conditions.

■ In 2003, Jack DeCoster paid the federal government $2.1 million after more than 100 undocumented workers were found at his Iowa egg farms.