Aug. 20, 2010 – An Iowa company on Wednesday broadened a nationwide
recall of its eggs to 380 million after some of its facilities were
linked to an outbreak of salmonella that has sickened hundreds of
people across the country.
Aug. 20, 2010 – An Iowa company on Wednesday broadened a nationwide recall of its eggs to 380 million after some of its facilities were linked to an outbreak of salmonella that has sickened hundreds of people across the country.
The outbreak, which federal officials said was the largest of its type related to eggs in years, began in May, just weeks before new government safety rules went into effect that were intended to greatly reduce the risk of salmonella in eggs.
The company behind the recall, Wright County Egg, of Galt, Iowa, is owned by Jack DeCoster, who has had run-ins with regulators over poor or unsafe working conditions, environmental violations, the harassment of workers and the hiring of illegal immigrants.
The salmonella outbreak began in May, when several states began seeing an increase in the number of cases of a common type of bacterial illness known as Salmonella Enteritidis, said Dr. Christopher R. Braden, acting director of food-borne diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. The numbers continued to grow, and in June and July, a database used to track disease nationwide found that the number of cases had risen from a historical average of about 50 a week to about 200.
Public health officials in California, Minnesota and Colorado determined that many of the people who had gotten sick had eaten food containing eggs. Further investigation traced many tainted eggs to Wright County Egg.
The company announced on Friday that it was recalling 228 million eggs that it had sold since mid-May. On Wednesday, it added another 152 million eggs to the recall. Many of the affected eggs have long since been cooked and eaten, but millions could still be stored in refrigerators.
The company said the recalled eggs came from five plants and were distributed across the country under the brand names Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph’s, Boomsma’s, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms, Kemps, James Farms, Glenview and Pacific Coast. (Dutch Farms said Wright County packaged eggs under its brand without permission.)
Consumers were told to return the eggs to stores.
Dr. Braden said that it was not yet possible to say how many people had fallen ill in the outbreak although it certainly numbered in the hundreds. Typically in salmonella outbreaks, only about one in 30 cases is reported to authorities, he said, so thousands of people may have been affected. He said there were no reports of deaths.
Salmonella can cause diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pains. In rare cases, it can cause more serious illness, including arterial infections.
The pathogen is transferred to eggs by infected hens and it can be found inside eggs that appear normal. The bacteria is destroyed by heat but people can become sick if they eat raw or incompletely cooked eggs. Federal regulators have grappled with the problem of salmonella in eggs since it first emerged in the 1980s. But proposals to improve regulations were largely unsuccessful until a year ago, when the Food and Drug Administration announced a new set of rules, which became effective on July 9.
The rules initially apply to egg producers with 50,000 or more laying hens, a category that federal officials said included Wright County Egg. The rules require producers to establish measures to control rodents that can pass salmonella to hens and to prevent contamination by workers or equipment. They also establish testing requirements for poultry houses and eggs.
In a news release on July 9, the F.D.A. said that the rules would prevent as many as 79,000 illnesses and 30 deaths a year related to the consumption of tainted eggs.
Dr. Braden said that investigators looking into the outbreak found cases in which restaurants had used raw eggs in a salad dressing or mixed raw eggs into soup. A case in California in May was traced to a catered event where people had eaten profiteroles containing a custard made with eggs, according to officials in that state.
Hinda Mitchell, a spokeswoman for Wright County Egg, said that the company had put the required federal measures in place by the July deadline. She said that before that date, the company had participated in a voluntary industry program that included steps similar to some of the new federal requirements.
Mr. DeCoster is well known to federal regulators.
In 1997, one of his companies agreed to pay a $2 million fine by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for violations in the workplace and worker housing. Officials said workers were forced to handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands and to live in trailers infested with rats. The labor secretary in the Clinton administration, Robert B. Reich, called Mr. DeCoster’s operation “an agricultural sweatshop.”
Mr. DeCoster’s facilities have also been periodically raided by immigration officials. In 2003, Mr. DeCoster pleaded guilty to charges of knowingly hiring immigrants who were in the country illegally and he paid more than $2 million as part of a federal settlement.
Mr. DeCoster was also charged by Iowa authorities in the 1990s with violations of environmental rules governing hog manure runoff.
Ms. Mitchell said that Mr. DeCoster was not available for an interview.
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