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Cracked Case: Egg Executives Get Jail for Salmonella Outbreak

A United States Department of Agriculture inspector checks eggs at Quality Egg of New England ( Robert F. Bukaty / AP file)

A United States Department of Agriculture inspector checks eggs at Quality Egg of New England in Turner, Maine, in 2010. Robert F. Bukaty / AP file

Two former egg industry executives were sentenced to three months in jail Monday for their roles in a major 2010 salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands.

Austin "Jack" DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster, faced up to a year in jail on charges of shipping adulterated food. They will remain free while appealing their three-month sentence.

Prosecutors said the sentence sends a strong message about the importance of following food safety rules because only a handful of similar cases have resulted in jail time.

"A sentence of imprisonment is a fairly significant sentence in a case like this," said Peter Deegan, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted the case.

The DeCosters wanted to avoid jail time, but U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett heeded prosecutors' calls for a tough punishment because of the widespread harm the outbreak caused. "There's a litany of shameful conduct, in my view, that happened under their watch," Bennett said.

Egg industry executives Peter DeCoster, left, and his father Austin “Jack” DeCoster AP files

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked 1,939 illnesses to the outbreak, but officials estimate that up to 56,000 people may have been sickened. Investigators argue that the DeCosters knew their Iowa egg facilities were at risk for salmonella contamination before the outbreak. The elder DeCoster, 80, of Turner, Maine, and his 51-year-old son, who lives in Clarion, Iowa, both pleaded guilty last year to introducing adulterated eggs into interstate commerce.

The DeCosters' Quality Egg company paid a $6.8 million fine as part of a plea agreement, and the DeCosters each paid $100,000. Quality Egg has admitted that workers knowingly shipped eggs with false processing and expiration dates to fool state regulators and retail customers about their age and bribed a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector at least twice to approve sales of poor-quality eggs.

It's unclear when or how the DeCosters learned about the bribes, but prosecutors said that shows their disregard for food safety regulations.

Both Jack and Peter DeCoster said they were sorry about the harm their products caused, but they still generally defended their food safety efforts. Jack DeCoster told the judge that he prayed for the victims of the outbreak to recover, but he wasn't worried about his court sentence.

"God is the one I'm worried about," Jack DeCoster said. "You can throw me in jail, your honor. That's all you can do to me. I've got to meet up with God one day."

Other food company leaders have faced criminal punishments for disease outbreaks tied to their products. In the past 18 months, two Colorado cantaloupe farmers were convicted and received probation in a deadly 2011 listeria outbreak, and the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America was convicted in a 2008 salmonella outbreak.

-- The Associated Press