Owners of Tainted Egg Farm Blasted at Congressional Hearing

BY Jenny Marder  September 22, 2010 at 5:04 PM EST

At a recent visit to the Wright County Egg farm, FDA inspectors found decaying rodent corpses, chicken carcasses, live mice and thousands of flies. One building had so much manure oozing through the door that it wouldn’t shut.

Lawmakers at a House Energy and Commerce committee hearing Wednesday blasted the owners of the egg farm tied to the latest outbreak of salmonella poisoning, calling conditions at the facility shocking, unsightly and unthinkable. Eggs from Wright County Egg and the nearby Hillandale Farms are believed to have sickened as many as 1,600 people from 11 states between May and September. In August, the companies recalled 500 million eggs.

Peter DeCoster, chief operating officer of Wright County Egg, defended the farm, calling salmonella “a fact of life in the egg industry.” His father, Austin DeCoster, who has owned the farm since 1949, said he’s made changes to comply with government requirements and clean the facility, which has a history of health and labor violations.

“The conditions in your facility were not clean, they were not sanitary. They were filthy … and it appears you are a habitual violator of safety standards.”
Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.

But that’s not what the FDA report indicated, said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif.: “It’s hard for me to reconcile your words – that you wanted to clean up and did clean up the facility – with your record. The conditions in your facility were not clean, they were not sanitary. They were filthy … and it appears you are a habitual violator of safety standards.”

Orland Bethel, president of Hillandale Farms, declined to answer any questions. Peter DeCoster answered many of the questions directed to his father, who said at one point he was hard of hearing.

Environmental deficiencies at the farm were a likely contributor to the salmonella contamination becoming widespread, said Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, who also testified at the hearing.

Also at the hearing were two of the victims infected by the recall. Sarah Lewis, a 30-year-old mother of two, has been in and out of the hospital since she ate a contaminated fruit custard at her sister’s graduation banquet in May. Carol Lobato, 77, who was sickened by a cake at a high-end restaurant in Colorado, also recounted a series of frightening hospital visits. Both have lost weight. Both said they feared their health had been permanently altered.

“I was so sick and so dehydrated and in so much pain, I could not see straight,” Lewis said.

A recent law, known as “the egg rule” strengthens standards designed to make eggs safe to eat. But committee members urged the Senate to pass a House bill to overhaul the country’s food safety laws. The legislation would empower the FDA to mandate recalls and provide resources for better traceability technology, more inspection and better safety enforcement.

“We need this bill,” Waxman said. “We need this bill to protect the safety of our food supply. We need this bill to prevent another food outbreak like the one that so devastated the witnesses we heard.”