By Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 23, 2010; A2
Before a congressional panel and consumers sickened by tainted eggs from his Iowa agribusiness, Austin "Jack" DeCoster said Wednesday that he was sorry for causing what has become the biggest national outbreak of salmonella illness on record.
"We were horrified to learn our eggs may have made people sick," said DeCoster, 77, whose hands shook as he made his first public statements about the outbreak. "I've prayed several times a day for all these people for improved health."
DeCoster told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations that he erred by trying to run his massive complex of 107 barns on 66 acres as if it were a small business, without employing sophisticated technology to combat salmonella contamination.
"While we were big, but still acting like we were small, we got into trouble with government requirements several times," said DeCoster, one of the biggest egg producers in the country. He has repeatedly clashed with regulators in Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New York and elsewhere over the past 30 years, but this was the first time he had been called before Congress. "I am sorry for those failings," he said.
Still, DeCoster insisted that his company's methods had evolved and that it was using modern techniques before the salmonella outbreak, which began in May and has sickened at least 1,600 people across the country.
"You have a history of over 30 years of salmonella in eggs and a pretty sordid record," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the committee. "You said you really tried to change your operation, modernize and clean up your facility. . . . It's hard for me to reconcile your words with the record. Your facilities were not clean, they were not sanitary. They were filthy. You are a habitual violator of safety standards."
Congressional investigators flashed color photographs of conditions found inside DeCoster's facilities in August by inspectors for the Food and Drug Administration. The photos showed dead and live mice, dead chickens lying in a heap in one henhouse, mounds of manure eight feet high, and the wall of a henhouse that was bulging and pushed open from the weight of manure piled inside.
DeCoster offered little by way of explanation. "This is a very big operation," he said in a thick Maine accent. "We have a certain way we go about running it."
His son, Peter, who runs daily operations at the Iowa facilities, said the company thinks the salmonella contamination was caused by tainted bone meal purchased from an outside supplier and mixed into the chicken feed. FDA officials have said there were multiple possible sources of salmonella throughout Wright County Egg facilities.
Orland Bethel, the president of Hillandale Farms, a related operation also implicated in the outbreak, refused to answer questions, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Hillandale released a statement saying it has severed its relationship with Wright County Egg, which owned one of its two facilities and had been providing it with chicken feed.
The FDA, which is responsible for the safety of eggs, is conducting a criminal investigation into DeCoster's Wright County Egg and Bethel's Hillandale Farms, but no charges have been filed.
After the FDA traced the outbreak to Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, the companies in August recalled about 500 million eggs sold under 24 brands - the largest egg recall in history.
No deaths have been linked to the outbreak of salmonella illness. Because many cases of salmonella go unreported, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that the actual number of people sickened in the current outbreak could be as high as 48,000.
Two of the victims testified Wednesday, detailing severe, ongoing medical problems.
"Your whole body from head to toe is in agony," said Sarah Lewis, a 30-year-old California resident who was hospitalized twice after eating a custard dessert in May that was made with eggs from Wright County Egg.
Carol Lobato, a 77-year-old Colorado woman, was hospitalized after eating a rattlesnake cake, similar to a crab cake, on July 10. Health officials found the rattlesnake cake was made with eggs supplied by Wright County Egg.
"The infection wiped me out to the point that I could not function on my own or even get to the bathroom by myself," she said, adding that she still suffers from fatigue, indigestion and weight loss.
Both women are suing Wright County Egg.
Lawmakers repeatedly used the hearing to lambaste their colleagues in the Senate for not taking action on a comprehensive food safety bill. The House last year overwhelmingly passed the legislation, which would give expanded enforcement powers to the FDA, place a greater burden on food companies to ensure their products are safe and create stiff new penalties for companies that knowingly send contaminated food into the marketplace, among other things.
Democrats on the committee accused Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) of holding up action on the bill. Coburn has objected to the cost of the legislation and some of the additional powers that would be granted to the FDA.