The heads of two egg farms in Iowa, USA linked to as many as 1,600 salmonella illnesses this summer gave few answers in a testimony before US Congress about the conditions at their farms. One executive would not testify and the other did not answer many of the lawmakers' questions.
The owner of Wright County Egg, Austin "Jack" DeCoster (photo), said he was "horrified" to learn than his products might have been the cause of the illnesses.
The CEO of Hillandale Farms, Orland Bethel, cited his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and did not answer questions.
Before lawmakers called Bethel to testify, two witnesses recounted how they were sickened by tainted eggs.
The chairman of the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said the outbreak paints "a very disturbing picture of egg production in America."
Members of the subcommittee showed photos of dead chickens, insects and piles of manure in hen houses at the two farms.
A subcommittee investigation found that Wright County Egg had received hundreds of positive results for salmonella in the past two years, including 73 samples that were potentially positive for Salmonella enteritidis.
Take a hard look
Although Bethel declined to testify, another Hillandale employee, Duane Mangskau, said the recall has forced the company to take a hard look at its operations.
After reading his prepared testimony, DeCoster, 75, had trouble answering some of the committee's questions, trailing off at times, speaking slowly and reading pieces of paper given to him by his lawyer. He told the committee that he was hard of hearing.
His son Peter, the company's CEO, took most of the questions, though committee members tried to get the older DeCoster to speak.
While acknowledging that conditions at the farm bother him "a lot," Jack DeCoster did not say much about the company's efforts to prevent salmonella contamination other than that his employees handle their duties "in a certain way."
"This is a complicated subject. I have to take it piece by piece," the elder DeCoster said.
Peter DeCoster took issue with Food and Drug Administration findings of filthy conditions at the farms, saying the agency's reports were only partially true. He said the company believes an ingredient purchased from a supplier may be to blame for the salmonella outbreak.
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.
"We were horrified to learn that our eggs may have made people sick," DeCoster said in the statement he read to the subcommittee. "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."
Peter DeCoster said the company has made "sweeping biosecurity and food safety changes" following the recall and will remove all chicken flocks that have not been vaccinated against the strain of salmonella linked to the illnesses.
Such vaccinations are not required by the government. Onsite inspections and testing also will increase, he said.
Feed mill “was clear”
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 it has no inspectional history with the companies. The FDA's deputy commissioner, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, said after the hearing that the agency has no records of that inspection.
Sharfstein urged Congress to pass food safety legislation that would give the agency more power to recall tainted products, require more inspections of food processing facilities and require producers to follow stricter standards for keeping food safe.
Cause yet unknown
The specific cause of the egg outbreak is still unknown, and the FDA is still investigating. Sharfstein said it is likely that widespread contamination at the farms caused the outbreak, and it is unlikely that it was just a feed ingredient, though the agency is not ruling anything out at this point.
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.