Reporting from Washington — Lawmakers probing the biggest recall of contaminated eggs in U.S. history made little progress Wednesday in getting to the bottom of the massive salmonella outbreak as they questioned senior officials of the company at the center of the problem.
Austin DeCoster, head of Wright County Egg, and his son Peter DeCoster, who runs the Iowa facility that was the source of most of the recalled eggs, apologized "to everyone who may have been sickened by eating our eggs" but offered little new information on how the salmonella outbreak occurred.
The DeCosters have been cited many times for health and sanitation violations. They insisted that steps had been taken to clean up after specific problems were uncovered. But they offered no explanation of why problems kept cropping up at their operations — first in Maine, then Maryland and now Iowa.
Austin DeCoster, who has been an industrial-scale egg producer for at least three decades, suggested that he was unable to control the scale of his operations. "Unfortunately, we got big quite a while before we stopped acting like we were small," he said.
The recent salmonella outbreak sickened about 1,600 people. The recall began Aug. 13 and has highlighted gaping holes in the nation's food safety regime. Despite the DeCosters' long record of problems, the Food and Drug Administration had never inspected their Iowa facilities before the recall.
An FDA investigation after the recall found filthy conditions, including rodent holes, liquid manure streaming through holes, and dead birds and maggots in the laying houses.
Peter DeCoster disputed some of the FDA's findings, at one point seeming to suggest that the FDA had been nitpicking. Asked about a report that a manure pile had grown so big that its weight and volume pushed open a door, he said there were "only four doors like that out of 292" at the facility.
The DeCosters pointed to contaminated feed as the likely culprit for the outbreak, but FDA Deputy Commissioner Joshua Sharfstein, testifying after the egg farmers, said the agency wasn't ready to single out a source for the problem.
"We believe there are multiple potential sources of Salmonella enteritidis on these farms," said Sharfstein, adding that problems with pest control and manure handling could have contributed to the spread of salmonella within the facility.
Rep. Michael Burgess (R- Texas) asked Sharfstein why the FDA didn't inspect Wright County Egg facilities, given the family's reputation among regulators. The DeCoster operation has paid millions of dollars in fines over the years, labeled a serial violator of environmental laws in Iowa and briefly had its eggs banned in New York and Maryland.
Sharfstein said a new rule governing egg production, which took effect July 9 — too late to affect the recall — will make it easier to hold egg producers accountable. The new rule sets standards for rodent control, manure handling and refrigeration.
The egg rule is separate from stalled food safety
legislation that Sharfstein said also was needed to expand the FDA's regulatory toolkit.
A second egg farmer, Orland Bethel, owner of Hillandale Farms of Iowa, which bought feed from Wright County Egg and also was involved in the recall, appeared at the hearing. But Bethel declined to testify, asserting his 5th Amendment right against self-incrimination.
The committee also heard from two women, Sarah Lewis, 30, of Freedom, Calif., and Carol Lobato, 77, of Littleton, Colo., who were sickened from eating contaminated eggs linked to the recall.
"I have lost my stamina. I often experience indigestion, and it is difficult for me to enjoy certain foods," said Lobato, who fell ill in mid-July.