Egg farmer in recall sued Md. over facility

By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 26, 2010

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 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 state 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.

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