Four years ago, Iowa was the focus of unwanted national attention triggered by an outbreak of Salmonella Enteritidis that sickened at least 1,800 people and led to the largest egg recall in United States history — more than 500 million eggs.
According to an editorial in the Des Moines Register, then-Gov. Chet Culver proposed a few long-overdue reforms that would have strengthened Iowa’s oversight of the egg industry. Three days later, Gov. Terry Branstad took office.
Since then, not one of the proposed reforms has been enacted.
Federal investigators attributed the 2010 outbreak to the Iowa operations of Austin “Jack” DeCoster, whose company eventually agreed to pay $6.8 million in fines for attempting to bribe a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector and for selling old eggs with false labels.
DeCoster and his son, Peter, have each agreed to pay $100,000 in fines. They are now awaiting sentencing on criminal charges of introducing tainted eggs into the nation’s food supply.
The DeCoster case perfectly illustrates why states must be vigilant in regulating their most important industries — particularly when the public health is at stake.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, DeCoster eggs that were produced in Maine and Maryland were linked to a series of salmonella outbreaks, including one in New York that killed nine people and sickened hundreds more.
New York eventually banned DeCoster from selling his eggs in that state, and Maine and Maryland imposed a variety of restrictions on his business. DeCoster complained about the expense associated with this new regulatory oversight and sold his Maryland operation. He focused his business on Iowa, the nation’s No. 1 egg-producing state, which had no state-imposed requirements for salmonella monitoring.
Even after the federal reforms were enacted, Iowa egg producers were still given advance notice of government inspections. In some cases, the companies dictated the date of their inspections. The egg producers also were allowed to continue to keep secret from inspectors the brand names under which their eggs were sold. They also withheld access to their complaint files and even refused to name company employees. Even now, egg producers are not required to notify state regulators when salmonella is found in their eggs and barns.