Prison Sentence Upheld in Egg Case

Quality Egg Owners Lose Appeal

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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As a result of the 2010 salmonella outbreak, Quality Egg recalled eggs that had been shipped from five of its six Iowa farms between May and August 2010. (Photo by MSU Ag Communications/Scott Corey)

OMAHA (DTN) -- The owners of a large egg-farm operation will serve jail time for knowingly introducing salmonella-laced eggs into commerce from farms in Iowa and Maine, after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eight Circuit affirmed a district court's ruling Wednesday.

Austin "Jack" DeCoster and Peter DeCoster pled guilty to misdemeanor violations of federal law and were sentenced to three months in prison for their role in a salmonella outbreak at Quality Egg LLC that sickened thousands of people in 2010. They had appealed their sentences to the Eighth Circuit as "unconstitutional, and claiming in the alternative that their prison sentences were procedurally and substantively unreasonable."

The company already paid some $6 million in fines and admitted its workers knowingly shipped eggs with false processing and expiration dates.

The jail time reflects a culmination of environmental, labor and food-safety violations and litigation for Jack DeCoster that go back decades in Iowa and Maine.

Quality Egg operated six farms with 73 barns filled with some 5 million egg-laying hens. It also had 24 barns filled with young chickens that had not yet begun to lay eggs. The company owned several processing plants where eggs were cleaned, packed and shipped.

In 2008, salmonella tests conducted at the company's Maine facilities came back positive.

According to court documents, the company eliminated salmonella from its Maine facilities. Tests also came back positive in 2006, and according to the Eighth Circuit's ruling, "the positive test results increased in frequency through the fall of 2010. Until the USDA adopted its new egg safety rule in July 2010, Quality Egg was not legally obligated to conduct salmonella tests of its eggs after receiving positive environmental test results."

Quality Egg tested its eggs in April 2009 after a Minnesota restaurant purchaser reported a salmonella outbreak, according to court documents.

"Other than conducting the single egg test in April 2009, Quality Egg did not test or divert eggs from the market before July 2010 despite receiving multiple positive environmental and hen test results," the Eighth Circuit said in the opinion.

In 2009, the company hired a consultant who recommended implementing the same measures in Iowa as had been used in Maine.

"Although the DeCosters claim they adopted all of the recommendations, the precautions implemented by Quality Egg failed to eradicate salmonella," the Eighth Circuit Court said.

As a result of the 2010 salmonella outbreak, Quality Egg recalled eggs that had been shipped from five of its six Iowa farms between May and August 2010.

According to court documents, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspected the Quality Egg farms in Iowa during an 18-day period in 2010.

"Investigators discovered live and dead rodents and frogs in the laying areas, feed areas, conveyer belts, and outside the buildings," according to court documents. "They also found holes in the walls and baseboards of the feed and laying buildings. The investigators discovered that some rodent traps were broken, and others had dead rodents in them... Investigators also observed employees not wearing or changing protective clothing and not cleaning or sanitizing equipment."

The FDA concluded Quality Egg "failed to comply with its written plans for biosecurity and salmonella prevention."

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Todd Neeley