By Associated Press Writer
updated 8/22/2010 2:56:15 PM ET 2010-08-22T18:56:15

Two Iowa farms that recalled more than a half-billion eggs linked to as many as 1,300 cases of salmonella poisoning share suppliers of chickens and feed as well as ties to an Iowa business routinely cited for violating state and federal law.

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Food and Drug Administration investigators have yet to determine the cause of the salmonella outbreaks at Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. The FDA investigation could take months, and sources of contamination are often difficult to find.

The number of illnesses, which can be life-threatening, especially to those with weakened immune systems, is expected to increase. The most common symptoms are diarrhea, abdominal cramps and fever eight to 72 hours of eating a contaminated product.

The company Quality Egg supplies young chickens and feed to both Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. The two share other suppliers, said Jewanna Porter, a spokeswoman for the egg industry, but she did not name them.

The egg industry has consolidated over recent years, placing fewer, larger businesses in control over much of the nation's egg supply to consumers.

The salmonella outbreak has raised questions about federal inspections of egg farms. The FDA oversees inspections of shell eggs, while the Agriculture Department is in charge of inspecting other egg products.

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William D. Marler, a Seattle attorney for a person who filed suit alleging illness from tainted eggs in a salad at a restaurant in Kenosha, Wis., said Sunday his firm has been retained by two dozen families and was representing a woman who was hospitalized in California.

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"The history of ignoring the law makes the sickening of 1,300 and the forced recall of 550 million eggs shockingly understandable," Marler said in an e-mail to The Associated Press. "You have to wonder where the USDA and FDA inspectors were."

Businessman Austin "Jack" DeCoster owns Wright County Egg and Quality Egg. Wright County Egg recalled 380 million eggs Aug. 13 after it was linked to more than 1,000 cases of salmonella poisoning. A week later, Hillandale Farms recalled 170 million eggs.

DeCoster is no stranger to controversy in his food and farm operations:

  • In 1994, the state of Iowa assessed at least four separate penalties against DeCoster Farms for environmental violations, many of them involving hog waste.
  • In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay $2 million in fines to settle citations brought in 1996 for health and safety violations at DeCoster's farm in Turner, Maine. The nation's labor secretary at the time, Robert Reich, said conditions were "as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop." Reich's successor, Alexis Herman, called the state of the farms "simply atrocious," citing unguarded machinery, electrical hazards, exposure to harmful bacteria and other unsanitary conditions.
  • In 2000, Iowa designated DeCoster a "habitual violator" of environmental regulations for problems that included hog manure runoff into waterways. The label made him subject to increased penalties and prohibited him from building new farms.
  • In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a more than $1.5 million settlement of an employment discrimination lawsuit against DeCoster Farms on behalf of Mexican women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment, including rape, abuse and retaliation by some supervisory workers at DeCoster's Wright County plants.
  • In 2007, 51 workers were arrested during an immigration raid at six DeCoster egg farms. His farms had been the subject of at least three previous raids.
  • In June 2010, Maine Contract Farming, the successor company to DeCoster Egg Farms, agreed in state court to pay $25,000 in penalties and to make a one-time payment of $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture over animal cruelty allegations that were spurred by a hidden-camera investigation by an animal welfare organization.

A spokeswoman for DeCoster, Hinda Mitchell, said Sunday that she had no comment on DeCoster's history of violations and that DeCoster himself would not be available for an interview.

Wright County Egg also faces a lawsuit from food distributor Dutch Farms alleging that the company used unauthorized cartons to package and sell eggs under its brand without its knowledge.

The CDC said last week that investigations by 10 states since April have identified 26 cases where more than one person became ill. Preliminary information showed that Wright was the supplier in at least 15 of those cases.

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Video: Consumers wait for sunny side of eggs to return

  1. Transcript of: Consumers wait for sunny side of eggs to return

    LESTER HOLT, anchor: Tonight, federal investigators are still trying to pinpoint the cause of a salmonella outbreak that has resulted in the record recall of a half billion eggs. It sickened more than 1300 people so far and, as our Lee Cowan reports, all that is changing the way a lot of Americans eat and shop.

    LEE COWAN reporting: The incredible, edible egg, as the marketing jingle once went, is for now, some fear, incredibly dangerous. With half a billion eggs shipped across 22 states now suspected of being tainted with salmonella, nationwide warnings continue for consumers to be vigilant.

    Dr. WILLIAM SCHAFFNER (Vanderbilt University Medical Center): No soft- boiled eggs , no over-easy fried, no soft scrambled. If you're going to eat those eggs, cook them and then almost cook them again.

    COWAN: Experts say, for now, the safest bet is to know your egg supplier.

    Ms. PATTY LOVERA (Food and Water Watch Assistant Director): If you have a way to find local eggs through a farmers market or something, that's a great way because you can ask more questions.

    Unidentified Woman #1: A dozen eggs.

    COWAN: At this farmers market in Studio City , California , the questions are everywhere, and not about cost.

    Unidentified Woman #2: I don't think that you can put a price on good health.

    COWAN: Business at this organic egg stand is up 20 percent.

    Ms. VANESSA GOMEZ (Egg Vendor): The manager has already ordered more eggs for next week, so we'll definitely have more.

    COWAN: The recalled eggs were linked to two major egg producers in Iowa , and they were packaged as long ago as April. Many have been cooked and eaten already, which critics say highlights the problem of issuing recalls too late.

    Mr. WILLIAM HUBBARD (FDA): It's another example of the fact that we still have a 19th century food safety system.

    COWAN: Currently, investigators in the US are largely left to chase down food-borne illnesses after the fact. Austin "Jack" DeCoster , the egg producer linked to this outbreak, has been cited by state and federal investigators before. Still, what the FDA really needs, critics say, is the funding and the resources to institute preventive measures first.

    Mr. CHRIS WALDROP (Food Policy Institute): They don't really know what's going on on these farms, so it takes a long time to investigate.

    COWAN: The FDA can't even mandate a recall at this point. Legislation has been pending for almost a year that would grant the FDA more powers, but it's scheduled for a vote next month.

    COWAN: United Egg Producers , who represents the industry, says that "both egg companies are going to extremes" to track down the tainted eggs. In the meantime...

    Unidentified Woman #3: Over hard. OK. With bacon, sausage or ham?

    COWAN: Customers will have to watch and wait for the sunny side of eggs to return.


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