In Capitol Hill testimony yesterday, Jack DeCoster, the aging Iowa egg mogul and owner of hen houses containing 8-foot piles of manure, offered a weak apology for a salmonella outbreak that sickened at least 1,600 people last month. "We were horrified to learn that we may have sickened people," the 77-year old DeCoster told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, reading from a script in an expressionless monotone that made him sound like a nervous 6th grader issuing his science report.
It's a classic mistake executives hauled up for Congressional grilling make -- waffling between defensiveness and contrition. Given DeCoster's long sordid history of food safety, labor and environmental violations -- he was responsible for three salmonella outbreaks in New York state in the late 80's -- and the extensive evidence of filthy conditions at some of his current farms, DeCoster and his son Peter, who also testified, would have been better served to hang their heads in shame and promise never to do it again. And show up with a long list of the credible improvements they're going to make.
But that sort of humble and proactive approach would have required the Decosters coming to terms with the fact that the way they've been doing business for more than 30 years is no longer acceptable, even within the industry. Jack DeCoster became one of the biggest egg producers in the country by running the absolute lowest cost operation and cleaning up his operations only when forced to. Fines levied by state and federal authorities were merely a cost of doing business. When his home state of Maine began meddling in his operations, he migrated to places with more lax regulations, ultimately setting up shop in Iowa, where he was later declared a "habitual violator."
The public humiliation and business costs the DeCosters have endured as a result of the outbreak may ultimately force them to completely re-think their business strategy. But for now, the DeCosters are sticking to their guns. Asked by Bart Stupak, a Democratic representative from Michigan, about photos taken by FDA investigators in August showing manure piles so big they'd busted through a door, Peter DeCoster offered this defense -- there were "only four doors like that out of 29" in the facility. It was an answer that won about as much sympathy as the DeCosters' insistence that prior to the recall they had "extensive SE (salmonella enteritidis) reduction practices" and followed "stringent standards for egg production, processing and transportation." Which only begged the question of how worse things were before.
Here are a few of the photos taken by the FDA, courtesy of MarlerBlog:
The hearing didn't offer any indication of whether the DeCosters are really going to clean up their act or where exactly the salmonella came from, though most clues point to meat-based feed coming from a DeCoster-owned feed mill. But what it did do is shed light on the desperate need for food safety reform, not that we needed another reminder. Before the outbreak, the FDA had never once set foot in DeCoster's massive facilities.
At one point the elder DeCoster boasted that in recent years he had "gone beyond government requirements," which tells you everything you need to know about federal oversight of the food system.
Image from Farm Sanctuary