By Lyndsey Layton
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 11:15 PM
The Iowa egg farmer at the center of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella illness tangled in the past with the state of Maryland, where he once ran two massive facilities and was charged with violating a quarantine by selling contaminated eggs.
Austin "Jack" DeCoster battled with Maryland in the early 1990s over his Eastern Shore egg empire in a dispute that highlights serious regulatory gaps in food safety that have been a factor in the industry for decades.
The state, responsible for making sure that food within its borders is safe, was unable to shut down a facility it considered hazardous because the company sold the eggs across state lines.
The Food and Drug Administration, responsible for ensuring the safety of shell eggs and other food shipped across state lines, took no action against the DeCoster facility, which was contaminated with salmonella.
And the U.S. Department of Agriculture, responsible for the hens' health, did not get involved since the salmonella did not make the hens ill, although infected eggs can pose a serious risk for people who eat them.
At the time, DeCoster fought Maryland's attempts to shut down his Kent County egg facility, which was producing 3.5 million eggs a week, virtually all for the national market.
DeCoster sued the state in federal court, where he successfully argued in 1992 that Maryland could not legally stop him from selling eggs across state lines.
"Salmonella enteritidis contamination of poultry products appears to approach epidemic proportions and the dangers of contamination are very real," wrote the federal judge, Herbert L. Murray. "However, the state of Maryland cannot act, on its own initiative, to protect the citizens of another state from eggs that the Maryland Department of Agriculture suspects might be contaminated."
DeCoster also said that the eggs had not been linked to any human illnesses and that the FDA, which had conducted tests at his facility, had not blocked their sale.
The FDA did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment. A spokeswoman for DeCoster said, "The facts of the case and the court decision speak for itself."
"Maryland was sticking its face in where it didn't belong," said C. Daniel Saunders, a lawyer in Chestertown, Md., who represented DeCoster in his standoff with Maryland officials, which began in 1991 and lasted until he sold his operation and moved out of the state in 1993.
After winning in federal court, DeCoster was found guilty in Maryland District Court of one charge: selling eggs from one of his quarantined henhouses to a market on the Eastern Shore in 1991. DeCoster, who said the sale resulted from a mixup, received a suspended fine of $500.
"I remember feeling very frustrated," said Susanne Hayman, who prosecuted the case in 1992 as an assistant state's attorney. She's now the Kent County administrator.
When DeCoster arrived in Maryland in 1980, he had already built a sizable egg facility in Turner, Maine. In 1987, he opened additional facilities in Iowa. In Maryland, he created two similar operations, one in Cecil County and the other in Kent.
Within a few years, problems developed in Maryland. By 1988, A.J. DeCoster Co.'s Maryland operation had been implicated in several outbreaks of salmonella, including one at a New York City hospital in which 11 people died, and New York officials barred the company from selling eggs in that state.
In January 1991, routine internal testing at DeCoster's Kent facility detected two hens infected with Salmonella enteritidis. The company reported the findings to the state. By the end of the month, Maryland had issued a quarantine notice, forbidding DeCoster from moving hens without permission from the state or selling eggs for any other purpose than pasteurization. Pasteurization kills salmonella bacteria, which had become a growing concern in the poultry industry.
Salmonella enteritidis infections can cause nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, diarrhea and fever. The illness can be briefly severe but is rarely life-threatening. In people with depressed immune systems, such as AIDS patients, however, salmonella can cause fatal bloodstream infections.
In the national investigation into the current outbreak, no deaths have been reported, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 1,300 people have been sickened by tainted eggs since May.
Until DeCoster prevailed in federal court in March 1992 and was able to resume egg shipments out of state, the quarantine was financially devastating, according to court documents filed by his attorney.
"When you embargo chickens, they're laying eggs seven days a week, 52 weeks a year," Saunders said. "You stack them up to the roof. They start going bad.. . .It's very, very costly and very, very disruptive to the operation. No producer wants this problem."
Contamination is common in poultry operations, and DeCoster is being vilified, Saunders said this week.
"They're portraying Jack as the Devil incarnate, making money at the expense of the consumer," he said. "There's another side to the story. A henhouse is not a sterile environment. It's not a milking barn; it can't be. The notion that eggs will ever be free of salmonella is ludicrous."
In at least one meeting with state officials in which DeCoster tried to get them to ease restrictions on his facilities, he accused them of trying to force him out of Maryland. "DeCoster spoke of closing the complex and moving the birds out of state, though he is aware of the legal complications of this," Roger Olson, a state agriculture official, wrote in a Feb. 3, 1991, letter to the department's commissioner.
Defeated in its attempt to stop DeCoster from shipping eggs to other states, Maryland maintained its restrictions against selling eggs from the affected facilities within the state.
Those restrictions were still in place when DeCoster sold his operations to Red Bird Egg Farms and left Maryland entirely. Red Bird had to "do a tremendous amount of work to clean up the operation until they could remove the salmonella and meet the requirements of the Maryland Department of Agriculture," said Julie Oberg, a spokeswoman for the agency.