Iowa egg producers Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son, Peter, stood in a Sioux City courtroom April 13 and were sentenced for their role in the nation’s largest egg-related salmonella outbreak.
That outbreak, which sickened at least 56,000 people (2,000 confirmed) and led to a record-setting recall of more than half a billion eggs, stands as one of the worst cases of corporate negligence in Iowa history.
At the hearing, U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett said the DeCosters “created a work environment where employees not only felt comfortable disregarding regulations and bribing USDA officials, but may have even felt pressure to do so.”
Given the magnitude of those crimes, and the tens of thousands of people who suffered as a result, the sentence that was handed down seems seriously lacking: The DeCosters were each fined $100,000 and sentenced to 90 days in jail, with a year of supervised release.
But the fact is, it’s not often that corporate executives are held criminally responsible for their companies’ actions, even when the nation’s food chain is poisoned. Most cases are resolved with corporate fines, and in this case the DeCosters’ Quality Egg had to pay almost $7 million in fines, restitution and forfeitures.
What’s more worrisome than the 90-day sentences is the fact that the DeCosters flouted federal regulations for years without ever being caught. The regulatory system that is supposed to prevent — not simply respond to — violations of food-safety regulations failed us completely. It wasn’t until consumers started becoming ill that investigators took any sort of meaningful action against the DeCosters.
According to federal authorities, the company deliberately and routinely provided false paperwork to an independent auditing firm that periodically inspected the plant and reviewed the company’s records to ensure the eggs were safe. On the eve of each impending audit, workers were given blank, signed audit forms and told to fabricate data for the reports. This went on for at least three years, at a time when the DeCosters were producing more than 1 million eggs per day.
For at least eight years, Quality Egg regularly shipped its customers eggs that were labeled with falsified processing dates and expiration dates to conceal the fact that the eggs were old. According to court records, this mislabeling of DeCoster eggs “was a common practice, and was well known among several Quality Egg employees.”
In 2010, federal inspectors conducted on-site visits to the company’s egg-laying facilities and feed mill. Inside, they found frogs; wild birds; a chicken skeleton; mice, beetles, maggots and flies; and manure that was piled to the rafters inside one building. Salmonella contamination was pervasive and widespread “throughout the entirety” of the Decosters’ Wright County egg operations.
On at least two occasions, Quality Egg officials bribed a USDA inspector to overlook regulatory violations — in one case, paying $300 from the company’s petty cash account.
Given the DeCosters’ long history of alleged regulatory violations related to salmonella outbreaks, the minimum wage, pollution, workplace safety, animal cruelty, child labor and the hiring of undocumented immigrants, government regulators should have been particularly vigilant in their oversight of this family’s Iowa operation. But they were not.