"We were horrified to learn our eggs may have made people sick," said
DeCoster, 77, whose hands shook as he made his first public statements
about the outbreak. "I've prayed several times a day for all these
people for improved health."
DeCoster told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight
and investigations that he erred by trying to run his massive complex of
107 barns on 66 acres as if it were a small business, without employing
sophisticated technology to combat salmonella contamination.
"While we were big, but still acting like we were small, we got into
trouble with government requirements several times," said DeCoster, one
of the biggest egg producers in the country. He has repeatedly clashed
with regulators in Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New York and elsewhere over
the past 30 years, but this was the first time he had been called before
Congress. "I am sorry for those failings," he said.
Still, DeCoster insisted that his company's methods had evolved and that
it was using modern techniques before the salmonella outbreak, which
began in May and has sickened at least 1,600 people across the country.
"You have a history of over 30 years of salmonella in eggs and a pretty
sordid record," said Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the
committee. "You said you really tried to change your operation,
modernize and clean up your facility. . . . It's hard for me to
reconcile your words with the record. Your facilities were not clean,
they were not sanitary. They were filthy. You are a habitual violator of
Congressional investigators flashed color photographs of conditions
found inside DeCoster's facilities in August by inspectors for the Food
and Drug Administration. The photos showed dead and live mice, dead
chickens lying in a heap in one henhouse, mounds of manure eight feet
high, and the wall of a henhouse that was bulging and pushed open from
the weight of manure piled inside.
DeCoster offered little by way of explanation. "This is a very big
operation," he said in a thick Maine accent. "We have a certain way we
go about running it."
His son, Peter, who runs daily operations at the Iowa facilities, said
the company thinks the salmonella contamination was caused by tainted
bone meal purchased from an outside supplier and mixed into the chicken
feed. FDA officials have said there were multiple possible sources of
salmonella throughout Wright County Egg facilities.
Orland Bethel, the president of Hillandale Farms, a related operation
also implicated in the outbreak, refused to answer questions, citing his
Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination. Hillandale released a
statement saying it has severed its relationship with Wright County
Egg, which owned one of its two facilities and had been providing it
with chicken feed.
The FDA, which is responsible for the safety of eggs, is conducting a
criminal investigation into DeCoster's Wright County Egg and Bethel's
Hillandale Farms, but no charges have been filed.
After the FDA traced the outbreak to Wright County Egg and Hillandale
Farms, the companies in August recalled about 500 million eggs sold
under 24 brands - the largest egg recall in history.
No deaths have been linked to the outbreak of salmonella illness.
Because many cases of salmonella go unreported, the Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention estimate that the actual number of people
sickened in the current outbreak could be as high as 48,000.
Two of the victims testified Wednesday, detailing severe, ongoing medical problems.
"Your whole body from head to toe is in agony," said Sarah Lewis, a
30-year-old California resident who was hospitalized twice after eating a
custard dessert in May that was made with eggs from Wright County Egg.
Carol Lobato, a 77-year-old Colorado woman, was hospitalized after
eating a rattlesnake cake, similar to a crab cake, on July 10. Health
officials found the rattlesnake cake was made with eggs supplied by
Wright County Egg.
"The infection wiped me out to the point that I could not function on my
own or even get to the bathroom by myself," she said, adding that she
still suffers from fatigue, indigestion and weight loss.
Both women are suing Wright County Egg.
Lawmakers repeatedly used the hearing to lambaste their colleagues in
the Senate for not taking action on a comprehensive food safety bill.
The House last year overwhelmingly passed the legislation, which would
give expanded enforcement powers to the FDA, place a greater burden on
food companies to ensure their products are safe and create stiff new
penalties for companies that knowingly send contaminated food into the
marketplace, among other things.
Democrats on the committee accused Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) of holding
up action on the bill. Coburn has objected to the cost of the
legislation and some of the additional powers that would be granted to