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The owners of two giant egg farms in Iowa were summoned to Capitol Hill today. Their eggs are blamed for poisoning at least 1,600 people with salmonella.
As NPR's Dan Charles reports, today's key witness, the man at the center of the recall, is no stranger to controversy.
DAN CHARLES: Austin DeCoster, owner of Wright County Egg in the town Galt, Iowa, has been the key hidden figure behind the salmonella outbreak. The FDA has blamed it on his operation and one of his partners.
The two companies recalled more than half a billion eggs. And through it all, DeCoster remained silent. Today he broke the silence, appearing before a subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
Mr. AUSTIN DeCOSTER (Owner, Wright County Egg): My name is Austin DeCoster. I go by Jack.
Unidentified Man: (Unintelligible).
CHARLES: At that point, a group of protesters interrupted the hearing.
Unidentified Man: All eggs kill. All eggs kill.
CHARLES: After they were led out, DeCoster continued.
Mr. DeCOSTER: 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.
CHARLES: DeCoster has a long history of problems with regulatory authorities. In the 1980s, he was fined for violating health and safety regulations in Maine, and his company's eggs caused a severe outbreak of salmonella in New York. Iowa in 2000 labeled him a habitual violator.
But today DeCoster said those problems were in the past. For the last 10 years, he said, the company has been doing all it can to run a clean operation. And DeCoster's son Peter, who now runs Wright County Egg, told the committee that the company now thinks it knows where this latest salmonella outbreak came from.
Mr. PETER DeCOSTER (Wright County Egg): We view the most likely root cause of contamination to be the meat and bone meal that was an ingredient in our feed.
CHARLES: Only chickens that ate feed containing this meat and bone meal laid eggs that tested positive for salmonella, Peter DeCoster said. So they've stopped using that feed ingredient, and they now vaccinate all their chickens against salmonella.
The FDA says feed can't be the only source of contamination.
Orland Bethel, the CEO of Hillandale Farms of Iowa, also implicated in the salmonella outbreak, refused to answer questions under the Fifth Amendment.
But Republican congressman Michael Burgess of Texas pulled out an email that Bethel sent to a fellow executive in late August. It implicitly accused Jack DeCoster, Hillandale's business partner, and Burgess read it aloud.
Representative MICHAEL BURGESS (Republican, Texas): Quote, "Hillandale need to totally disassociate itself from Jack, and it has to be real."
CHARLES: That turned attention right back to the DeCosters. Congressman Bart Stupak showed pictures of their plants that the FDA took during inspections in late August.
Representative BART STUPAK (Democrat, Michigan): Look at the manure coming out of the building from the foundations, the door. That manure pile is about seven to eight feet tall. It's seeping out through cracks.
CHARLES: Peter DeCoster tried to argue that the FDA's report made things seem worse than they really were, that the tough winter caused a manure hauler to get behind and a few dead birds aren't unusual in a house with 80,000 chickens. Yes, there are flies, he said at one point. It's a farm.
But Democratic congressmen, like Henry Waxman of California, were having none of it.
Representative HENRY WAXMAN (Democrat, California): It sounds like to me that both of you are refusing to take responsibility for a very poor facility.
CHARLES: Waxman and others took the occasion to rail against the failure of the Senate to move forward with a new food safety bill. If passed, the bill would give the FDA authority to order recalls and demand records from food producers. Waxman says Republican Senator Tom Coburn is holding things up.
Dan Charles, NPR News, Washington.
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