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Producer worked to stifle rules some say could have prevented egg recall
Owners of the Iowa egg production company that has voluntarily recalled millions of eggs linked to Salmonella outbreaks were significant donors in opposition to a 2008 California ballot measure that restricted cage confinement of poultry.
California’s Proposition 2, which was overwhelmingly passed by that states voters but doesn’t go fully into effect until 2015, required that “calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant sows be confined only in ways that allow the animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.” Advocates of the measure took special exception to treatment of hens, which they described as being “crowded into small wire cages” that were “stacked to the ceiling in the name of efficiency and profits.” The egg industry countered that the cages protect hens from disease and from their tendency for flight.
Each side spent millions to sway California voters, and at least 13 Iowa companies with ties to the egg industry donated in an effort to defeat the new confinement regulations. The largest donation from Iowa — $100,000 in September 2008 — came from a tiny real estate company called Galt Real Estate. According to filings with the Iowa Secretary of State’s Office, the company maintains a business address in Galt that is also home to at least 15 additional businesses, some active and others inactive, but all with ties to the DeCoster family.
Wright County Egg, the company that has issued a voluntary recall of more than 350 million eggs is owned by family patriarch Austin J. “Jack” DeCoster, who as the New York Times reported, has had numerous run-ins with state and federal regulators on a wide variety of issues.
In fact in June 2000, DeCoster was the first in Iowa to be given the dubious title of “habitual violator” of state environmental laws. The label, which is attached to higher fines and additional regulation, can only be applied after a business has already had three violations referred to the Attorney General for legal action and accessed a civil penalty by a court.
In 2003, the DeCosters paid $1.5 million in fines to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to resolve complaints of sexual harassment and rape by company supervisors. That same year DeCoster pleaded guilty to federal immigration violations and agreed to pay a then record $2.125 million. (Following the fines, immigration raids at DeCoster’s Wright County egg plants netted 36 undocumented workers in 2006, and an additional 51 undocumented workers in 2007.)
DeCoster has ran afoul of regulators in other states too. In December 2006, for instance, the Ohio Department of Agriculture revoked the operating permits of Ohio Fresh Eggs, because the company hid its involvement with DeCoster due to his history with environmental regulators. Years earlier, in 1996, DeCoster was fined more than $3.5 million by national safety regulators for mistreatment of workers at egg farms in Maine.
Animal welfare advocates who fought to pass confinement regulations in California are already pointing to the recent egg recall as further proof that practices within the egg industry are bad both for livestock and consumers. Regulations like the ones DeCoster tried to fight in California, they say, can help stymie bacteria-born illnesses like Salmonella.