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Iowa Egg Producer's Salmonella History Detailed

Sep 22, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

Austin “Jack” DeCoster, the owner of the Iowa egg farm at the center of a nationwide Salmonella outbreak, has apparently been here before. According to a New York Times report, eggs produced at DeCoster-owned farms have been tied to Salmonella outbreaks in the past.

DeCoster owns Wright County Egg, which together with Hillandale Farms, also of Iowa, has recalled more than half a billion eggs since August. The Centers for Disease Control has linked the firms’ tainted eggs to more than 1,600 cases of Salmonella around the country.

According to the Times report, DeCoster’s farms were a primary source of Salmonella enteritidis in the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, when some of the first major outbreaks of human illness from the bacteria in eggs occurred. A 1987 outbreak at New York’s Coler Memorial Hospital that killed 9 people and sickened 500 was traced to eggs produced at a farm DeCoster owned in Maryland. The Coler Memorial outbreak still ranks as the deadliest related to eggs in US history.

In a 1982 Salmonella outbreak, three dozen people fell ill and one person died at the Edgewood Manor nursing home in Portsmouth, N.H. The runny scrambled eggs blamed for the illnesses were traced to a farm in Maine that DeCoster owned at the time. According to the Times’, eggs from the same farms were also suspected in a simultaneous outbreak that sickened some 400 people in Massachusetts.

The year after the Coler Memorial outbreak, two other Salmonella outbreaks were linked to DeCoster eggs. At that point, officials in Maryland and New York banned DeCoster eggs, and he was forced to agree to a Salmonella testing program for his Maryland and Maine farms. That testing found that one of his breeder flocks was infected with Salmonella. The breeder hens could have been passing it to their chicks, which in turn would have laid tainted eggs, the Times said. Salmonella was also found in laying barns.

The testing programs didn’t solve DeCoster’s problems, and in 1991, Salmonella contamination was again found at one of his Maryland farms. Maryland quarantined the eggs, and told the DeCoster that he could only ship pasteurized eggs. But a federal judge blocked the move, and DeCoster started shipping again. In 1992, eggs from that same farm were tied to a Connecticut outbreak, the Times said. At that point, federal regulators forced DeCoster to decontaminate his barns.

According to the Times, DeCoster sold his Maryland farms in 1993 and focused his attention on Iowa, where there are no requirements on Salmonella testing. Maine is the only state where DeCoster’s farms have been subject to tough oversight.

This brings us to where we are today, with more than 1,600 people sickened by tainted eggs. And sadly, it doesn’t seem DeCoster has improved his record in Iowa. Since this latest outbreak hit the news, it has been learned that since 2008, Salmonella was found inside Wright County Egg barns more than 400 times. It’s unclear what steps Wright County Egg took in those instances.

In the wake of the latest outbreak and recall, FDA inspections of some Wright County Egg facilities found sanitation problems that could have contributed to Salmonella contamination, including bug and rodent infestations, and uncontained manure piles. The strain of Salmonella involved in the outbreak was identified in samples of Wright’s chicken feed and in a few places on the farm. Storage bins for feed and feed ingredients that had multiple problems which could have led to Salmonella contamination.

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