Before Iowa's Tainted Eggs, There Was Maine

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Despite the extra precautions, Hoenig is frustrated by continual SE contamination. "We made progress to a point, and then we didn't. We were kind of at a static level—we had a couple of problem complexes that wouldn't go away. So I just made the decision, two and a half years ago, that we had to take another step: mandatory vaccination."

At Quality Egg, a company that was cited in 2009 for 10 counts of animal abuse, entrusting minimally-trained workers with the difficult task of vaccinating millions of birds may lead to problems.

The new measures were influenced by a successful British initiative to vaccinate laying hens. If it is adopted widely in the U.S., Hoenig hopes it will eventually be a Salmonella silver bullet. Under the new program, there has not been a SE positive house in Maine since October 2009, nearly a year. Hoenig's pleased with the results, but says celebration is premature. "If we can go another year, or two, without a positive house," he said, "then I'll say—let's break out the champagne."

Vaccination poses its own challenges—it's expensive, and each bird has to be vaccinated twice by hand. The plants are beginning to use a machine to administer the vaccines, but each bird still has to be placed into it, individually, by an employee. At Quality Egg, a company that was cited in 2009 for 10 counts of animal abuse, entrusting minimally-trained workers with the difficult task of vaccinating millions of birds may lead to problems. Workers are now required to attend new animal husbandry training every six months. Because of the abuse case settlement, Hoenig has brought in an outside veterinarian. Dr. Charles Hofacre of the University of Georgia, whom Hoenig calls one of the country's last academic experts on poultry health.

Hofacre visits the Maine facilities to help safeguard animal welfare. Still, he told me recently, because of his full-time work in Georgia, he does not enforce many of his recommendations directly. The quality assurance person on site is a DeCoster employee, he said, not an independent animal specialist or veterinarian, so inspection reports may be imperfect. On a non-routine basis, Hoenig sends in independent inspectors to perform unannounced audits.

But there are other problems with DeCoster egg factories—ones that fall outside of Hoenig's oversight, and ones that recall the recent problems at DeCoster factories in Iowa. By rigidly limiting independent oversight to Salmonella-related matters, the state of Maine ignores the other violations that have been ongoing at Quality Egg for decades. Hoenig himself insists that his role is limited to animal health and husbandry, but the many serious infractions that have occurred under his watch suggest the state should intervene in other arenas. While Maine's Salmonella contamination rates have dropped in two decades, Quality Egg has meanwhile generated a long list of labor and environmental misdoings:

    • In 1988, Quality Egg was fined $46,250 for 184 workplace violations.

    • Between 1988 and 2005, Maine labor lawyer Donald Fontaine brought over a dozen civil suits against Jack DeCoster for workplace violations. Many of the suits related to federal overtime laws: though U.S. law stipulates that agricultural employees working directly with perishable goods do not need to paid overtime, DeCoster management has routinely cited this law to avoid paying overtime to deserving employees. "The people who pick your lettuce and grapes in this country don't get overtime," Fontaine said, "but DeCoster wasn't paying mechanics, carpenters and people who deserved it." Many of these cases were settled out of court, and have not become matters of public record due to settlement agreements.

    • In 1996, OSHA brought a historic suit against DeCoster. Then-Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich accused the Maine operation of fostering "dangerous and oppressive conditions," and proposed a $3.6 million fine, including a long, itemized list of dozens of "egregious" and "willful" violations.

    • In July 1997, the Maine Board of Environmental Protection fined DeCoster for building a disposal system for animal wastewater without state approval.

    • In June 2002, OSHA fined Maine Contract Farming, a firm that handles laying operations in DeCoster-owned facilities, $345,810 for unwillingness to fix hazardous worker conditions.

    • In July 2003, a group of Mexican workers won a $3.2 million settlement against DeCoster Egg Farms of Maine for workplace and housing violations.

    • In August 2008, OSHA fined Maine Contract Farming $150,000 for willingly exposing workers to hazardous conditions, including forcing employees to work in rickety facilities that faced imminent collapse.

    • In April 2009, an undercover investigator for Mercy for Animals uncovered deplorable conditions and rampant animal abuse at Quality Egg's Turner facilities. In July 2010, Turner operator Maine Contract Farming agreed to pay $134,000 in a settlement, which included 10 civil charges of animal cruelty.

These are only highlights in a long string of serious violations linked to the Decoster family in Maine—and most have little to do with Salmonella. In my next article, I will discuss 60 years of DeCoster family misdeeds in Maine—unfolding a criminal genealogy that begins shortly after 1949, when Jack DeCoster set up shop in Maine with 150 hens, and continues through to the present day.

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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