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Federal authorities launch deeper probe into Iowa egg producers
Federal agents have paid another unannounced visit to two Iowa egg producers currently embroiled in a voluntary recall of Salmonella-tainted product.
Wright County Egg, owned and operated by the DeCoster family, and Hillandale Farms, owned and operated by Orland Bethel, have come under increased government scrutiny in the wake of a voluntary egg recall of more than half a billion eggs that has left more than 1,400 Americans ill. Federal agents again descended upon the businesses Tuesday, but authorities are not yet willing to divulge further details.
Bob Teig, spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Iowa, would only confirm that federal agents were on the properties.
“We are not disclosing what agency or agencies are involved, or the purpose,” Teig told The Iowa Independent Wednesday morning.
A spokeswoman for the farms, according to the Associated Press, has indicated that the agents who arrived on Tuesday were a part of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. That department, which released its on-site inspection observations Monday that documented filthy conditions at the sites, does have the authority to investigate alleged crimes involving tainted food, but prosecutions would be done through the U.S. Department of Justice and, presumably, through the Northern District offices.
Austin “Jack” DeCoster has a long history with federal and state regulators, and has paid millions in fines. Bethel has been associated with DeCoster in previous agribusiness dealings. Both have been asked to appear before a U.S. House panel in September.
Iowa is the largest egg producer in the nation, and state egg industry advocates are concerned the situation will adversely impact other state producers. The current banner on the Iowa Poultry Association’s website reminds visitors that “Iowa’s egg farms generate 7,600 jobs in Iowa.” The featured recipe on the Iowa Egg Council’s website isn’t a recipe at all, but tips for safe preparation of eggs.
Animal welfare and environmental advocates are also doing all they can to alert the public to their causes in the wake of the recall. In a Tuesday press release, the Humane Society of the United States noted that the FDA inspections at the Iowa farms mirrored their own previous undercover findings at two other Iowa egg farms. State-based Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement said in their press released that the recent Salmonella outbreak and recall “is only the latest example why factory farms are not only environmentally unsustainable but also a serious threat to the public health.”
The FDA did approve new rules to ensure egg safety and reduce Salmonella illnesses. Although those new rules went into effect on July 9, it is unlikely, based on the previous observations by federal inspectors, that either of the two farms were in compliance.
Under the new rule, egg producers whose shell eggs are not processed with a treatment, such as pasteurization, must:
- Buy chicks and young hens only from suppliers who monitor for Salmonella bacteria
- Establish rodent, pest control and biosecurity measures to prevent spread of bacteria throughout the farm by people and equipment
- Conduct testing in the poultry house for Salmonella Enteritidis. If tests find the bacterium, a representative sample of the eggs must be tested over an eight-week time period (four tests at two-week intervals); if any of the four egg tests is positive, the producer must further process eggs to destroy the bacteria, or divert the eggs to a non-food use
- Clean and disinfect poultry houses that have tested positive for Salmonella Enteritidis
- Refrigerate eggs at 45 degrees fahrenheit during storage and transportation no later than 36 hours after the eggs are laid (this requirement also applies to egg producers whose eggs receive a treatment, such as pasteurization)
The new rule was established at that time for producers having 50,000 or more laying hens, or roughly 80 percent of all U.S. producers. The rule is scheduled to take effect for producers with fewer than 50,000 but at least 3,000 hens on July 9, 2012. Producers who sell eggs directly to consumers or who have less than 3,000 hens are not impacted by the rule.
The Egg Safety Center has a complete list of recalled eggs, their expiration dates and brands. Federal officials do expect the number of individuals who become ill to continue to rise. To date, no one who has contracted Salmonella from the eggs has died, but some have become seriously ill and are contemplating or have already filed lawsuits against the companies.