Members of a House subcommittee showed photos of dead chickens, bugs and holes in hen houses on Wednesday as they prepared to question the heads of two egg farms linked to as many as 1,600 cases of salmonella poisoning this summer.
The committee chairman, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said the outbreak paints "a very disturbing picture of egg production in America."
The owner of Wright County Egg, Austin "Jack" DeCoster, said in prepared testimony that he was "horrified" to learn that his eggs may have sickened so many people. But DeCoster also suggested that the outbreak might not be his company's fault.
United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) sanitation reports from the packing facility at Wright County Egg farm in Iowa show the inspectors noted the presence of bugs 30 times in the three months leading up to the salmonella outbreak.
Sarah Lewis, 30, testified that she still has diarrhea, fevers and stress in spite of a trip to the intensive care unit and several weeks of sickness after eating a custard tart at her sister's graduation banquet. Her sister also contracted salmonella poisoning from the eggs.
"Knowing how sick we were scares the heck out of us now," Lewis said.
Another victim, Carol Loboto, 77, teared up as she described a loss in stamina and constant indigestion.
The panel has asked DeCoster to come prepared to explain what steps have been taken to address salmonella contamination found at the farms.
In testimony released by the company, Wright County Egg, DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster, say they believe an ingredient sold to them by an outside supplier may be to blame for the outbreak.
So far, an FDA investigation appears to be focused on Wright and another company linked to the illnesses, Hillandale Farms. The two companies recalled more than a half-billion eggs related to the outbreak in August.
Agency investigators found several samples of salmonella at the two farms. An investigation by the House subcommittee found that Wright County Egg had received hundreds of positive results for salmonella in the last two years, including 73 samples that were potentially positive for Salmonella Enteritidis, the strain responsible for the recent outbreak.
"We were horrified to learn that our eggs may have made people sick," Jack DeCoster said in the testimony. "We apologize to every one who may have been sickened by eating our eggs. I pray several times each day for all of them and for their improved health."
The president of Hillandale Farms, Orland Bethel, cited the Fifth Amendment in declining to testify at a House hearing on the outbreak. Wright County Egg operates one of Hillandale's barns and supplies feed to the company.
Jack DeCoster is no stranger to tangling with the government. He has paid millions of dollars in state and federal fines over at least two decades for health, safety, immigration and environmental violations at his farms.
In the testimony, DeCoster says his companies, which span several states, grew too fast.
"We were big before we started adopting sophisticated procedures to be sure we met all of 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."
Peter DeCoster, CEO of Wright, said the company has made "sweeping biosecurity and food safety changes" following the recall and will remove all their flocks that have not been vaccinated against the strain of salmonella linked to the illnesses. Such vaccinations are not required by the government. On site inspections and testing will also increase, he said.
Peter DeCoster also said the FDA inspected the company's feed mill in May and found no deficiencies. That is contrary to previous statements from the agency, which has said FDA has no inspectional history with the companies.
The specific cause of the outbreak is still unknown, and the FDA is still investigating.
No deaths have been reported due to the outbreak. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said this is the largest outbreak of this strain of salmonella since the start of the agency's surveillance of outbreaks in the late 1970s. For every case reported, there may be 30 that are unreported.