Just last week, the former owners of Decoster Egg Farm were in the news yet again. The United States charged Austin ‘Jack’ Decoster and his son, Peter, with introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. The government alleges they are responsible for the 2010 salmonella outbreak that caused thousands of people to get sick and led to the recall of 550 million eggs. Ironically, the name of the company they currently own is Quality Egg, LLC.
In the charge, the U.S. claims that Quality Egg, LLC sold products from 2006 to 2010 with labeling that “made the eggs appear to be not as old as they actually were.” While the introduction of adulterated eggs into the market seems bad enough, the company did not stop there. It is also charged with bribing a public official (a felony) for allegedly paying a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector to approve shell eggs that had been held back for failing to meet federal standards. Not surprisingly, when the FDA investigated, it found salmonella peppered all over the farm, filthy conditions, dead chickens, insects, rodents and piles of manure.
Anyone familiar with DeCoster knows this is not a singular incident. In fact, the only surprising part of the story is the fact that DeCoster is still in business after his long history of violating the law.
- In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms paid $2 million in fines for health and safety violations at the DeCoster Egg Farm in Turner, Maine. Robert Reich, the nation’s labor secretary at the time, labeled the conditions “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop.” The conditions at the farm were noted to include unguarded machinery, electrical hazards, exposure to harmful bacteria and other unsanitary conditions.
- In 2000, DeCoster was deemed a “habitual violator” of environmental regulations by the State of Iowa. Problems that led to this designation included hog manure runoff into waterways. As a result, he was subject to increased penalties.
- In 2002, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a settlement of more than $1.5 million in an employment discrimination claim involving Mexican women workers who claimed they had been sexually harassed, raped, abused and retaliated against by supervisors at DeCoster’s Wright County plants in Iowa.
- In 2010, the successor company to DeCoster Egg Farms, Maine Contract Farming, agreed to pay $25,000 in penalties and a one-time payment of $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture as a result of animal cruelty allegations generated through a hidden-camera investigation.
- In 2011, several employees brought a claim alleging they were not paid overtime pay, denied prompt medical attention and denied proper safety equipment. There had been a similar claim in 1999 where the DeCoster workers won a class-action settlement and workers were paid $5 million in overtime pay.
What is clear about DeCoster’s ongoing violation of the law is a complete and utter disregard for the health and safety of its workers, the animals it raises, the environment, the market industry, its consumers, and even the general public. When is enough enough? One wonders why we continue to allow a business owner to operate a business where he consistently treats his employees poorly, produces a substandard product and causes injury to innocent people.
When our government officials make claims that improving working conditions, placing more stringent regulations on business operations, and protecting consumers are too burdensome for businesses, we need only look at the history of DeCoster Eggs.
The truth is, we simply cannot just trust businesses to do what’s right. The laws in place to protect the public are necessary and they must be enforced. And, at some point, businesses such as DeCoster’s must be taken down before something truly tragic happens. They’re well past the “three strikes and you’re out” point.
About the author: Karen Bilodeau is an attorney and partner at McTeague Higbee. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 207-725-5581.