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DeCosters testify in egg recall

By Staff | Sep 23, 2010

-AP?photo Protestors unfurl a banner on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday as Wright County Egg owner Austin “Jack” DeCoster, left, and Chief Operating Officer Peter DeCoster, right, testify before the House Oversight and Investigations subcommittee hearing on “The Outbreak of Salmonella in Eggs.”

WASHINGTON – Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son Peter made their first public comments regarding a shell egg salmonella outbreak that was traced back to their Wright County Egg operation during a congressional hearing Wednesday that was broadcast via the Internet.

The DeCosters fielded questions from multiple U.S. representatives, including U.S. Reps. Bob Latta, R-Ohio, and Bruce Braley, D-Iowa.

In his opening statement, Jack DeCoster said he was “horrified” to learn that his company’s eggs had made people sick, and that he “prayed several times a day” for the recovery of those who were sick.

Braley asked both DeCosters and Duane Mangskau, an employee of Hillandale Farms in New Hampton – also included in the recall – whether they felt personally responsible for the incident, which has left the nation’s egg producers in a negative light.

Mangskau said he was sorry for an inconvenience the recall may have created for the industry, while both DeCosters said it was a terrible, horrible thing that occurred.

However, when Braley asked Jack DeCoster how this recall happened, DeCoster answered that it was “complicated question” and explained what he had done in the past when salmonella enteriditis was found in his other operations in Maine.

A House subcommittee investigation uncovered that Wright County Egg received hundreds of positive test results for salmonella in the last two years, including 73 samples that were potentially positive for salmonella enteriditis.

Latta questioned Peter DeCoster about how often the farms’ facilities were inspected.

Peter DeCoster told Latta that the Iowa Department of Agriculture doesn’t inspect the housing facilities, and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources only investigates if there is a complaint concerning water quality. He added that the company filed annual manure management plans with the DNR.

Peter DeCoster told the committee that salmonella tests for the feed produced at the Wright County Egg feed mill were never conducted. He also testified he and his father believe the feed to be the source of the outbreak because of contaminated bone meal provided by a third party that was added to the feed.

Peter DeCoster said the company now has a testing policy in place, as well as other measures to ensure the quality of its feed.

He also said he disputed some of the federal Food and Drug Administration’s findings that were outlined in a report released Aug. 30.

Peter DeCoster cited that employees moving from one barn to another without changing clothes or wearing protective gear wasn’t specified in the new egg rules as a biosecurity measure and that the findings in the report were only partially true.

During the hearing, Mangskau said the Hillandale Farms operation in Alden was owned by the DeCosters, and that the family had a “shared interest” in the West Union facilities.

Hillandale Farms owner Orlando Bethel declined to answer questions and was eventually dismissed as a witness, but not before Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Texas, entered into the record an e-mail from Bethel to a John Glessner stating that Hillandale needed to totally disassociate itself from “Jack” or its reputation would be lost.

Burgess asked Bethel if the “Jack” stated in the e-mail was Jack DeCoster and why he felt the need to disassociate himself from Jack DeCoster.

Bethel said he respectfully declined to answer the question citing his Fifth Amendment rights.

Mangskau said in his opening statement to the committee that the Hillandale Alden facility terminated its relationship with Wright County Egg, and added that no eggs at the West Union facilities tested positive for salmonella.

While the producers sat in the hot seat, Burgess also had some tough questions for Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner for the Food and Drug Administration.

Sharfstein admitted that the FDA has the authority to inspect egg producing facilities prior to the new egg rule issued in July, however, it had not conducted any general inspections of Wright County Egg.

“Why wouldn’t you inspect?” Burgess asked. “You had a companion agency, in the hen house so to speak, did they not notice, an 8-foot-high pile of manure?”

Sharfstein said he couldn’t speak for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was not represented at the hearing, but that the FDA was concerned.

“Not enough,” Burgess replied. “Holy cow, how do you not notice an 8-foot-high pile of manure? Coupled with the DeCoster’s history, why was there no tendency for cross-communication between your agency and the USDA?”

Sharfstein said the FDA was working on its communication with the USDA, and noted that a Food Safety Bill, which is stalled in the Senate, would improve the FDA’s oversight.

“What exactly is in that new bill that you didn’t already have?” Burgess asked, who supported the passage of the bill from the Oversight and Investigations committee and in the House. “If one federal agency had used common sense and talked to another, we may not have had this problem. How do we legislate that?”

Two women who became sick from the bacteria testified to the committee about their experiences at the beginning of the hearing, and others have filed lawsuits against Wright County Egg.

The source of the salmonella enteriditis at the farms has not been confirmed yet. The FDA is still investigating.

Contact Lindsey Mutchler at (515) 573-2141 or lindsey@messengernews.net

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