Hard Boiled: Congressional Committee Questions Egg Execs

Egg farm executives answer questions from a congressional subcommittee.

September 22, 2010, 2:36 PM

Sept. 22, 2010— -- Carol Lobato, 77, said her salmonella poisoning "wiped me out to the point that I could not go to the bathroom by myself or function on my own."

Sarah Lewis, 30, said her salmonella infection kept her in and out of the hospital for more than a month. After eating a custard tart at her sister's graduation party, Lewis became so sick her doctors believed she would need emergency bowel surgery.

Both Lobato and Lewis shared their stories with members of the Subcommitee on Oversight and Investigation Wednesday as part of a hearing investigating the operation of two egg farms implicated in the salmonella outbreak that sickened nearly 1,600 people and led to a nationwide egg recall.

"To think that my sister and I got sick from a company that does not care about their regulations and quality is appalling to my family and me," Lewis said.

Lobato returned home from a dinner at an upscale restaurant in Morrison, Colo., last July with her husband and grandson when the waves of vomiting and explosive diarrhea took hold. Although she was released from the hospital a week later, Lobato said her illness persists.

"The salmonella infection is not over for me. I have lost my stamina," Lobato told members of the subcommitee. "I often experience indigestion, and it is difficult for me to enjoy certain foods."

Lewis said she also still feared that her body had not rid itself of the infection and that she could experience another bout of sickness.

"I wish I could say this could never happen again," she said.

Egg Farm Executives Put on Spot

Austin DeCoster, owner of Wright County Eggs, and Hillandale Farms President Orland Bethel answered questions from subcommittee members Wednesday about numerous failed inspections, and implicated repeat offenders in distributing contaminated eggs. Both farms voluntarily recalled more than a half-billion eggs in August.

Wright farms are the only ones to receive "habitual violator" status by the state of Iowa.

In his testimony, Austin DeCoster said his companies had grown too fast.

"We were big before we started adopting sophisticated procedures to be sure we met all the government requirements," he said. "While we were big but still acting like we were small, we got into trouble with government requirements several times."

At one Wright farm, inspectors found towering manure piles seeping through cracks, rodent infestations and unattended dead chickens.

When asked whether Austin DeCoster approved of the farms' operations, he responded, "This is a very big operation. We have a certain way we go about running it."

When asked whether both Austin DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster, CEO of Wright County Eggs, believed they were responsible for the salmonella outbreaks, they apologized said they felt "very bad."

Under the Fifth Amendment, Bethel of Hillandale Farms declined to answer any questions asked by committee members.

New regulations enacted in July 2009 gave farms a year to test and fix any potential safety problems. But as the deadline approached, conditions on farms such as Wright and Hillandale, both located in Iowa, prompted Food and Drug Administration inspections.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention investigation found that the salmonella contamination within the farms came from the liquid in the eggs, not the shells, as was previously proposed. This suggested that the hens were contaminated with salmonella that passed through to the egg.

But the latest round of inspections is not the first to implicate unsanitary conditions. The House panel received documents that showed Wright County Egg's facilities in many states routinely tested positive for salmonella contamination in the two years before the outbreak.

13th Food Safety Hearing Since 2007

Wednesday's meeting was the 13th hearing since January 2007 that looked at food safety. Previous hearings included recalled foods such as spinach, peanut butter and jalapeno peppers. The investigating subcommittee, along with the FDA, hopes that today's testimony will push the Senate to approve stringent food safety legislation that would give the FDA more oversight.

"We need an overhaul of food safety laws," Michael Taylor, the FDA's deputy commissioner for foods told "Good Morning America." "The FDA is working under laws that go back to the 1930s that mostly give us the ability to react to problems. We want to be in the business of preventing food safety problems."

The legislation now on the Senate floor would give the FDA the authority to issue mandatory recalls "instead of relying on a company's good will," said Stupak.

"Without legislative action, it's not a question of if but when more lives will be put at risk," he said.

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