A Look At The Company Behind The Egg Recall

The Iowa egg producer linked to the salmonella outbreak has a long history of violations. And the family-owned company, DeCoster Operations, has paid millions of dollars in fines and penalties to settle environmental, labor and immigration complaints. NPR's Melissa Block talks to Philip Brasher, who has been covering this story for the Des Moines Register.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

The Iowa egg producer linked to the salmonella outbreak has a long history of violations. And the family-owned company has paid millions of dollars in fines and penalties to settle environmental, labor and immigration complaints.

Philip Brasher has been covering this for The Des Moines Register. He joins us in the studio. Welcome to the program.

Mr. PHILIP BRASHER (Reporter, The Des Moines Register): Thank you.

BLOCK: This is the DeCoster family business. They own Wright County Egg; they supplied feed and hens to Hillandale - the two companies that recalled more than half a billion eggs. How big a name is that in Iowa, the DeCoster family?

Mr. BRASHER: Well, DeCoster is rather a notorious figure back in the 1990s; kind of faded from the headlines in recent years. Notorious because he moved into the state from Maine, set up large hogs and chicken operations, and had a whole series of environmental violations involving the manure from his hog farms and got into continual trouble with state regulators. And quickly became a poster child for what was wrong with large-scale agriculture to people who didnt want to see farming go in that direction. And more than a little bit of an embarrassment to leaders in agriculture who thought that was the way to go, and were afraid that Iowa was going to lose a lot of its livestock production to other states.

BLOCK: And a whole range of complaints that this company has faced over the years - you mentioned some environmental issues. There was also, though, an employment discrimination lawsuit settled, I guess, in 2002 on behalf of Mexican women working on one of the Iowa farms. And discrimination is a gross understatement for what was charged here.

Mr. BRASHER: Oh, yeah. There were allegations that women were raped and otherwise sexually harassed by supervisors at their egg facilities.

BLOCK: And the company said?

Mr. BRASHER: The company paid a fine, settled the case.

BLOCK: There were also a whole series of immigration charges, fairly recently, against DeCoster. What happened?

Mr. BRASHER: Right. He pleaded guilty to federal immigration charges, that he had knowingly hired undocumented workers in his facilities. He was one of the earlier operations in terms of farms to bring low-skilled, unskilled immigrants into his plants to work.

You have to remember that one of the things that has facilitated the large confinement operations, particularly in the egg industry in some areas, is the move toward mechanization and use of low-skilled workers, away from having to have higher-skilled workers to work with the animals.

BLOCK: The DeCoster egg operation was in the news again this year. They faced animal cruelty charges and settled that case, as well. This had to do with a farm in Maine?

Mr. BRASHER: Right, it had to do with abusing the hens in the operation up there and they paid a fine to settle it. It's a pretty unusual case. Im not aware of any other egg operation, certainly in Iowa, thats been brought up on animal cruelty charges before.

BLOCK: How has DeCoster responded to these latest charges in this salmonella outbreak?

Mr. BRASHER: DeCoster is only talking to us through a public relations firm. And what they have said is that they are cooperating with the FDA. They say that they're now in compliance with the new FDA regulations. Prior to that, they were working under a less stringent set of standards, developed by an industry organization called United Egg Producers.

BLOCK: Okay. Philip Brahser, thanks for coming in.

Mr. BRASHER: Thank you.

BLOCK: Philip Brasher covers agriculture and food policy for The Des Moines Register.

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