Jack DeCoster, Hillandale Farms: Culprits in Massive Egg Recall?

Egg king Jack DeCoster owns farms that produced some of the tainted eggs.

August 19, 2010, 6:02 PM

Aug. 20, 2010 — -- A second Iowa egg farm has ordered a major recall of eggs today in an effort to stem the outbreak of salmonella.

The voluntary recall was announced by Hillandale Farms. The company is located about 100 miles from the Wright County Eggs, based in Galt, Iowa, which has previously ordered a recall of 380 million eggs in one of the largest egg recalls in history.

"There have been laboratory-confirmed salmonella enteritidis illnesses associated with the shell eggs," Hillandale Farms noted in a press release. "[T]he investigation is ongoing."

It was not immediately determined how large the Hillandale recall will be. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is not investigating any additional egg farms. Instead, the agency is now "looking for commonalities" among the affected farms, such as where these farms were buying feed and the facility that provided the farms with young hens, according to Sherri McGarry, director of the Division of Public Health and Biostatistics at the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition (CFSAN).

"My guess it's the investigation is nowhere near complete. There is the possibility this contamination spreads to many farms," former FDA Associate Commissioner William Hubbard told ABC News' Brian Hartman.

The eggs that are believed to be tainted were sold under the following brand names: Lucerne, Mountain Dairy, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Albertson, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, James Farms, Glenview, Mountain Dairy, Ralph's, Boomsma's, Lund, Dutch Farms, Kemps and Pacific Coast.

For a full list of egg brands and plant numbers affected by this recall, visit the Egg Safety Center at http://www.eggsafety.org.

Nearly 2,000 people have been sickened by salmonella linked to eggs in recent months, a number authorities say is likely to rise.

So far the majority of the recalled eggs have come from Wright County Eggs, putting the focus on the company's owner Jack DeCoster.

DeCoster is no stranger to controversy. He's been involved in legal cases that have forced him to settle with the federal government for hiring illegal immigrants, for tolerating sexual harassment at his company, and has faced a litany of animal cruelty charges. DeCoster has also paid millions of dollars in fines and settlements over the years stemming from complaints about the health violations at his farms.

DeCoster, 75, is at the helm of the family-run egg farm Wright County Eggs based in Galt, Iowa. His farm, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, is responsible for providing salmonella-tainted eggs to 15 of the 25 restaurants where patrons have fallen ill.

The recall is the latest complaint lodged against DeCoster during his multi-decade career as an egg farmer.

One of the more egregious was filed in the summer of 1996 when DeCoster was made to pay more than $3 million in fines after the U.S. Labor Department found dead chickens being picked up by workers with bare hands. The complaint also stated that DeCoster's workers also lived beside manure and rat-infested trailers, according to the Associated Press. The complaint led to a boycott of DeCoster's eggs by several major supermarkets.

In 2000, the Iowa attorney general dubbed DeCoster a "habitual violator" of the state's environmental laws and ordered him to pay a $150,000 fine. DeCoster had failed to properly dispose of the hog and chicken manure and had let it run into a nearby creek.

Egg King Started in Business at Age of 12

Earlier this year, DeCoster pleaded guilty to 10 counts of animal cruelty over his company's treatment of its chickens. In June, DeCoster was ordered to pay more than more than $100,000 in fines and restitution, a ruling that is considered one of the landmark animal cruelty cases in history.

The charges and subsequent guilty plea came after an undercover investigation by Mercy For Animals, a national non-profit animal protection organization, that said they witnessed live birds being thrown in the trash, employees whipping birds by their necks in an attempt to kill them, and hens living in cages so small that their wings could not be lifted without getting snagged on wires.

The rotting corpses of hens were also often not removed from the cages they shared with hens that were producing eggs to be used in human consumption, according to Daniel Hauff, the director of investigations for the organization. His charges were also detailed in the complaint.

Investigators tracing the latest salmonella outbreak have traced some of the eggs back to DeCoster's farms. While they haven't determined yet what caused the outbreak, they are looking into whether rodents had been defecating in the chicken feed.

DeCoster began farming, according to a childhood friend, when he was just 12 with just a fraction of the chickens he now has.

"He's a self-made man," said Ralph Caldwell, a dairy farmer in Turner, Maine, where DeCoster was raised. "He started with 250 chickens, now he has 12 to 15 million, and all the hogs you can count."

According to Caldwell, DeCoster is a born-again Baptist who has contributed significant amounts of money to rebuild churches in Maine and in Iowa. He has four boys, all of whom Caldwell says "were brought up to work."

"He's a busy person, the type of guy who will leave his truck doors open and the engine running in the parking lot," said Caldwell. "He's possessed with doing business."

Egg King DeCoster Frequents Courts

Over the years, much of DeCoster's business has been done in various court rooms, a fact that Caldwell doesn't dispute but also argues doesn't tell the whole story.

"I'm not questioning that there've been problems, but it isn't from a lack of trying to do it right," said Caldwell.

DeCoster's company's spokeswoman Hinda Mitchell said he was not available for an interview with ABC News.

Public court records and reports chronicle DeCoster's storied history. With farms sprinkled across the U.S. in Maine, Ohio and Iowa, each of his properties has been the subject of litigation at one time or another.

In 2003, DeCoster reached a $2.1 million settlement with the federal government after pleading guilty to knowingly employing more than 100 undocumented workers in his Iowa farms, according to court documents.

It was allegations sexual harassment that landed DeCoster in trouble in 2002. Eleven female workers filed a complaint against DeCoster for sexual harassment, including rape, at the Iowa farms. According to the court documents, the women claimed that they were threatened that they would lose their jobs if they reported the crimes.

DeCoster again settled, paying $1.5 million to the victims, the documents state.

This latest recall, according to DeCoster's childhood friend, isn't likely to get him down. The others, said Caldwell, only served as motivation for him to keep working harder.

"The takeaway message is that problems are unsolved opportunities," said Caldwell. "He's going to do everything he can to get it fixed just as fast as he can to get back to business."

ABC News' Brian Hartmen, Kim Carollo and Brad Martin contributed to this report.

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