Egg Producer Knew of Salmonella Months Before Massive Recall

PHOTO: In this Sept. 22, 2010, file photo protestors unfurl a banner on Capitol Hill in Washington as Wright County Egg owner Austin DeCoster, left, testifies before the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing on the outbreak of salmonell
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The egg producer whose eggs were linked to a nationwide salmonella outbreak that sickened nearly 2,000 people was told that hens at its farms were contaminated four months before the salmonella outbreak led to the recall of 550 million eggs.

Documents unearthed in a lawsuit by California food cooperative NuCal Foods show that as of May 2010, Iowa State University's Veterinary Diagnostics Lab had told the Iowa egg companies owned by Jack DeCoster that salmonella had been found in dead chickens and manure at three DeCoster plants.

In addition to the civil suit, a federal grand jury in the Northern District of Iowa is investigating whether top DeCoster executives, including Jack DeCoster, continued to sell their products despite knowing they were unsafe. DeCoster, through his lawyers, has previously denied that he knowingly sold contaminated eggs.

The documents include reports sent from the Iowa State lab to a DeCoster manager on May 1 and May 11, in which an ISU scientist says salmonella had been found in three DeCoster plants and that 20 carcasses tested positive for salmonella, April emails that show 43 percent of DeCoster's hen houses were testing positive for salmonella, and a May 1 email in which the ISU scientist tells a colleague that salmonella is "almost certainly" present in DeCoster eggs.

The FDA contacted DeCoster's Wright County Egg company on August 9, 2010 with notification that illnesses in three states had been linked to its eggs. Wright County initiated a recall within days, followed by a second DeCoster company, Hillandale Farms, a week later. A total of 550 million eggs were recalled from stores and from middlemen like NuCal.

Eggs from the DeCoster farms were ultimately linked by authorities to 1,939 confirmed cases of Salmonella Enteriditis, though the FDA estimates that tens of thousands of people were sickened. No deaths were reported as part of the salmonella outbreak.

According to a rule that went into effect in July 2010, egg producers who detect salmonella in their facilities must do further testing and destroy the salmonella or else make sure the eggs are not used for food. NuCal's lawsuit alleges that DeCoster continued to sell eggs after it was aware of the presence of salmonella, and seeks compensation for the eggs the cooperative had purchased.

DeCoster's attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.

Dr. Patrick Halbur, head of the ISU lab, said that the lab was not obligated to report the presence of salmonella to the government. "We report the results to the submitting veterinarian unless it is what we call a reportable disease," explained Halbur. "Salmonella has been around for a long long time and is not on that list."

Halbur said the lab has no control over what the client does with the results of a salmonella test. "[W]hat we do do is make ourselves available to assist them with solving the problem," said Halbur.

"The lab did the right thing," said Dr. David Acheson, former food safety chief at the FDA and now a health care consultant with Leavitt Partners. "They passed [the information] on to the egg company. The question is, what should the egg company have done? The egg company should have done something to prevent illness."

"If we give them the benefit of the doubt, and there's an element of naivete, they didn't realize there was a problem. Or they did know it was a problem and didn't act, which raises other questions," said Acheson. "It has to be one or the other."

Asked for comment on the status of the federal grand jury probe, spokesman Pete Deegan of the U.S Attorney's Office in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said, "We are unable to confirm or deny the existence of criminal investigations, so we have no comment in response to your inquiry."

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