Jack DeCoster has a lot of problems right now. Literally, right now, as he is in front of the Energy and Commcerce Subcommittee on investigations. I wish I could be there to hear his side of the story, but no matter how eloquent his apology and/or explanation, it will be difficult to revive an image (both his own and his company’s, Wright County Egg) with all the sordid information that has come to light since the outbreak and recall broke in August.
William Neuman of the New York Times, a regular star on the food safety beat, today wrote a comprehensive summary of Mr. DeCoster’s previous problems/experience with Salmonella enteritidis:
Mr. DeCoster’s frequent run-ins with regulators over labor, environmental and immigration violations have been well cataloged. But the close connections between Mr. DeCoster’s egg empire and the spread of salmonella in the United States have received far less scrutiny. …
Farms tied to Mr. DeCoster were a primary source of Salmonella enteritidis in the United States in the 1980s, when some of the first major outbreaks of human illness from the bacteria in eggs occurred, according to health officials and public records. At one point, New York and Maryland regulators believed DeCoster eggs were such a threat that they banned sales of the eggs in their states. …
The first enteritidis outbreak recognized by public health officials came in July 1982, when about three dozen people fell ill and one person died at the Edgewood Manor nursing home in Portsmouth, N.H. Investigators concluded that runny scrambled eggs served at a Saturday breakfast were to blame. They traced the eggs to what the Centers for Disease Control reports referred to as a large producer in Maine; interviews with investigators confirmed that it was Mr. DeCoster’s former operation.
Eggs from the same farms were also suspected in a simultaneous outbreak that sickened some 400 people in Massachusetts.
Three years later, Mr. DeCoster bought back the Maine farms. By then, the clusters of salmonella illness had begun to spread.
In 1987, the deadly outbreak at Coler Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island occurred. Investigators determined that mayonnaise made from raw eggs had caused the outbreak. They traced the eggs to Mr. DeCoster’s Maryland farms.
After two more outbreaks were linked to DeCoster eggs the following year, New York banned Mr. DeCoster from selling eggs in the state. He was forced to agree to a rigorous program of salmonella testing on his farms in Maine and Maryland. …
In 1991, tests revealed more salmonella contamination at one of Mr. DeCoster’s farms in Maryland. The state quarantined the eggs, allowing them to be sold only to a plant where they could be pasteurized to kill bacteria. Mr. DeCoster challenged the order and a federal judge ruled that Maryland could not block him from shipping eggs to other states. He was still barred from selling the eggs in Maryland, and in 1992, a state judge found that he had violated the quarantine by selling eggs to a local store; Mr. DeCoster was given a suspended sentence of probation and a token fine.
So, the bottom line: not only were conditions and food safety practices at Wright County reprehensibly inadequate, but Jack DeCoster had a wealth of experience with, and presumably knowledge about, the Salmonella enteritidis problem well before the present outbreak happened. There is really not much that Mr. DeCoster can say in his own defense today.