Iowa Public Television

 

Iowa Egg Producers Testify to House Subcommittee

posted on September 23, 2010


Hello, I'm Mark Pearson. Since the recession officially ended in June of 2009, there have been signs of a slow, but not always steady, reinvestment in America. This week, those signs were mixed.

Orders for durable goods were down 1.3 percent last month. But, when the volatile transportation sector is taken out of the equation, orders rose 2 percent -- the best in five months.

Sales of new homes had their second worst showing since 1963. But construction of new homes increased more than 10 percent over last month and 2 percent higher than a year ago.

The market reacted by climbing almost 200 points to close just over 10,850.

Despite this week's somewhat encouraging news, the road to recovery remains a bumpy one. The recent recall of more than half-a-billion eggs -- triggered by a salmonella outbreak --dealt a blow to the agricultural sector which briefly shook consumer confidence.

Well aware of the implications, members of the House Subcommittee on Energy and Commerce Oversight summoned the owners of the two companies involved in the recall to Washington.

The owners of the nation's largest egg producing company have remained silent since last month's record breaking recall. Sparked by 1,600 confirmed cases of salmonella poisoning, the FDA asked Wright County Egg, the number one U.S. egg producer, to voluntarily call back more than half-a-billion eggs.

Jack DeCoster and his son Peter, whose Wright County Egg operation sells billions of eggs annually, have stayed out of the public eye since the mid-August recall. This week, the pair broke the month-long silence when they were summoned to a House Sub-Committee hearing.

Tensions were running high even before the DeCosters had a chance to speak.

Unidentified protestor: "All eggs kill. All eggs kill."

Then the elder DeCoster was given the opportunity to testify.

Austin DeCoster, owner, Wright County Egg: We apologize to everyone who may have been sickened by eating our eggs. I have prayed several times each day for all of these people for improved health."

With the obligatory opening statements completed, the grilling began.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan: "In your testimony you admitted your facilities have had problems. That's indisputable. There have been several outbreaks associated with your eggs in two states. If you've cleaned up your operations as you say, why di this outbreak occur?"

Austin DeCoster, Wright County Egg: "Um, will this is a… Mr. Chairman this is a complicated subject."

Peter DeCoster, Wright County Egg: "We tested voluntarily because we was trying to learn if we had the problem and if we had the problem, what would be the best practices that we could set forward."

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas: "Now I'm going to interrupt you again. I'm not trying to be rude but let me just suggest that if you to seventy-two swabs in one day, and all but eight tested positive, you've got a problem. Can I suggest that to you?"

Peter DeCoster, Wright County Egg: "Well you can suggest it sir."

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California: "You've claimed that you were going to modernize and clean up your facility. But, it doesn't appear that you've modernized and cleaned up you facilities. I sounds like to me, that both of you are refusing to take responsibility, for a very poor facility. How do respond to that."

Peter DeCoster, Wright County Egg: "Well, hopefully I'll be allowed to finish this time. But… I mean we're jumping all over the place. You're not giving me time to answer the question."

Rep. Henry Waxman, D-California: "The conditions of your facility were not clean. They were not sanitary. They were filthy. And given the thirty year record of violations, it appears that you are a habitual violator of basic safety standards."

The DeCoster's own a feed mill they believe is the source of the salmonella. Their investigation points to contaminated meat and bone meal supplied by an outside vendor.

The hens at Wright County Egg were not the only ones affected. Hillendale Farms, another Iowa producer, purchased feed from the same mill. Both companies were asked by the Food and Drug Administration, or FDA, to participate in the recall.

Despite taking part in the action, the CEO of Hillendale farms declined to tell his side of the story.

Orland Bethel, CEO, Hillandale Farms: "I respec…I respectfully decline to answer the question based on the protection afforded me under the 5th Amendment of the constitution."

The DeCosters control millions of chickens and the sales of billions of eggs throughout the United States. Over the past 20 years, DeCoster has paid millions of dollars in fines for everything from unsafe working conditions to immigration violations. And two states have banned the sale of all DeCoster products.

This week's hearing raised questions that went beyond the issue at hand. A brief argument between Chairman Bart Stupak and ranking member Michael Burgess, a Texas Republican, focused on pending food safety legislation. The measure, recently passed by the House, would give the FDA authority to impose mandatory recalls on potentially tainted food. Currently, the bill is being kept off the floor in the Senate through a political maneuver known as a "secret hold."

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan: "Legislation comes out of this committee because of the work of many people on this committee. The full committee, democrats and republicans, is bipartisan. And we passed a bill July of 2009, after three years of work by this committee. And yeah, we're a little frustrated, that the Senate, one person, put a hold on a bill.

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas: "That is Senator

Reed for the record."

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan: "One person can put a hold on a bill…."

Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas: Senator Reed, the majority leader in the Senate…"

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Michigan: "One person can put a hold on a bill and our legislation does not move. So you have a beef, take it up with Senator Coburn and maybe we can move our legislation."

No deaths have been linked to the salmonella outbreak associated with the two Iowa egg producers and the specific cause is still unknown. The FDA investigation is ongoing and, so far, no fines or penalties have been issued.


Tags: agriculture diseases eggs food safety news salmonella