If there’s one lesson to be learned from the 2010 salmonella outbreak that originated in Iowa and sickened thousands of consumers nationwide, it’s the high cost of failing to properly regulate egg production.
Jack and Peter DeCoster, who were criminally charged for the way they ran the Quality Egg operation in Iowa, were bad actors, as the Iowa egg industry now admits. But what sort of regulatory system do we have that allows scofflaws to not only flourish but also become some of the industry’s biggest players?
That’s a question our governor and state legislators have steadfastly, and very deliberately, refused to address. Still, it has to be asked, particularly in light of the recent revelations that the Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship indefinitely suspended its inspection of egg production facilities last year to eliminate any risk of inspectors spreading the bird flu virus.
As Des Moines Register reporter Jason Clayworth reported last Sunday, these 166 state-inspected facilities each have 3,000 or fewer hens and are not required to follow certain federal regulations that apply only to larger facilities. It’s the responsibility of the state, not the federal government, to inspect these smaller facilities.
It’s a critical job because just one egg farm with 2,800 hens is capable of producing 750,000 eggs per year. As things stand now, no one — not the federal government and not the state — is inspecting those facilities for food safety.
Even before Iowa suspended its inspections, regulators were already guilty of running some aspects of the inspection program on the honor system. Iowa egg producers were given advance notice of government inspections. In some cases, the companies actually dictated the date of their inspections. Once on site, inspectors did little or no testing, relying instead on the companies’ self-professed testing results.
Egg producers also were allowed to keep secret from inspectors the brand names under which their eggs were sold. They also withheld access to complaint files and even refused to name company employees.
Is it any wonder, then, that the DeCosters were able to do business in a manner that federal prosecutors say demonstrated an “appalling disregard” for public health and safety?
The evidence of Iowa’s complicity in the nation’s largest-ever egg-related salmonella outbreak cannot be ignored. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, after DeCoster eggs from Maryland and Maine were linked to a series of deaths and injuries tied to salmonella, Maine imposed a variety of restrictions on the company. Jack DeCoster complained about the expense associated with the increased oversight and refocused his business on Iowa, which had no state-imposed requirements for salmonella monitoring.
Federal prosecutors say that in Iowa, DeCoster could simply disregard some of the precautions he was forced to take in Maine. Had he been subjected to more rigorous oversight here in Iowa, 1,900 people might not have been injured. At the very least, inspectors would not have been shocked when, in the wake of a massive egg recall, they stopped by a DeCoster farm in Iowa and found that it was producing salmonella-contaminated eggs at a rate 39 times higher than most other producers.
Yes, the DeCosters are out of business now, but what has Iowa done to ensure that other “bad actors” don’t take their place?
In fact, some elements of Iowa’s egg supply are more at risk now than ever before.
After the 2010 outbreak, with the encouragement of the egg industry, Iowa shifted its oversight of the industry from the state inspections department to the state agriculture department, an agency whose mission includes the promotion of Iowa farming.
Then, the Branstad administration rejected all of the egg-safety recommendations made by former Gov. Chet Culver, arguing the additional oversight Culver proposed would duplicate federal rules and be redundant. In fact, the exact opposite was true: The Culver recommendations dealt with the smaller farms that are, by all accounts, exempt from federal oversight.
The Des Moines Register Editorial Board