Before Iowa's Tainted Eggs, There Was Maine

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Long before August's egg recall, which was linked to Jack DeCoster's Iowa egg operations, DeCoster facilities in Maine had a Salmonella problem. This story, the first in a two-part series, focuses on the measures Maine took to reduce Salmonella in the laying houses. Next week's story will chronicle the long history—six decades worth—of DeCoster violations in Maine.

In 1988, New York State placed an embargo on eggs produced by Quality Egg of New England. Several New York residents had been sickened with Salmonella, and the illnesses were traced to the company's facilities in Turner, Maine. The FDA found that henhouses there were contaminated with Salmonella Enteritidis (SE), the strain most commonly transmitted to humans through undercooked eggs. The offending facilities were (and are still) owned by Jack DeCoster, the egg mogul whose Iowa laying houses were blamed for last month's massive recall.

To retain selling rights in New York, Maine's two commercial egg producers—Quality Egg and Dorothy Egg Farms—agreed to subject their operations to tighter oversight. Since 1988, Dr. Donald Hoenig, Maine's state veterinarian, has been in charge of reducing SE statewide. Over the years, he's developed a quality assurance program, far more rigorous than the federal rules, that has been adopted in the 80 laying houses in the state with 50,000 or more birds.

I recently spoke with Hoenig about DeCoster's history in the state, and about the specifics of Maine's program—a program both strict and effective, and one the rest of the country should be taking careful note of to prevent massive recalls in the future. And this doesn't take into account DeCoster's long history of criminal misdoings, which I'll be reviewing at length in my next article. "In the 20-plus year history of the program," Hoenig said, "we haven't had a human case of Salmonella linked to Maine eggs." The main components are constant testing, thorough cleaning—and mandatory vaccination of hens, something many advocates think should have been made a national law long ago.

This doesn't mean there have been no SE-positive henhouses in Maine during Hoenig's tenure. While the recent FDA reports on the DeCoster's Iowa facilities suggested that the Salmonella outbreak was the result of gross negligence, environmental SE contamination is routine in large henhouses—even in facilities that are more vigilantly maintained. "We've had complexes that have stayed negative for years," Hoenig told me. "The majority have been clean for 10, 15 years." But every facility has its problem houses—chronic offenders that just can't seem to test clean. "At any one point," Hoenig said, "probably 10 to 15 percent of the buildings [statewide] tested positive for SE."

The rest of the country hasn't adopted standards as strict as Maine's. Hoenig said that the FDA rules are more lax: they only mandate that eggs from positive houses be "diverted" for the life of the flock.

Hoenig insists that Salmonella control is not just a matter of keeping a clean house—it's "a constant battle" to bar and remove carriers of SE from the vast laying barns. "A lot of these facilities are aging," he told me. It takes constant oversight to keep wild animals out.

"The primary reservoir of SE is mice," he said. "They harbor the Salmonella in their gut. In some cases, the facilities have well-entrenched rodent populations that are very resistant to control." The mice are drawn to the large amounts of chicken feed, which sits in long, open troughs in front of the laying cages 24 hours a day. "The chickens always have access to food," Hoenig said, "because it keeps their production up. The mice climb up onto the feeders, poop into the feed, and the chickens ingest their droppings. Then it can spread from bird to bird, if they're in contact with the other birds' feces." Most hens fight off SE quickly, but contact with contaminated waste can quickly reinfect them. Wild birds are another common culprit. "There's shelter in there, there's plenty of feed, there's no predators for wild birds," Hoenig said. The FDA reported seeing mice and outside birds in Iowa's contaminated houses.

And Hoenig mentioned another common SE vector that did not show up in that report: cats. "People drop cats off near farms, and they become wild and look for shelter and a place to live. They get in through gaps in the doors, or improperly maintained manure cleanout doors—the big doors in the basements of the houses where all the manure falls, when they don't keep them in good repair. They're generally not neutered, so they breed. [Quality Egg has] has had a couple of complexes that had cat problems."

Hoenig's quality assurance program, the Maine SE Risk Reduction and Surveillance Program for Commerical Egg-Type Flocks, begins with the chicken houses themselves. Hens are brought in at about 20 weeks of age, when they begin to lay. Industrial laying henhouses are built in long rows so that each facility has a flock on a unique timetable—that way, only one house is empty at a time, and there is no drop in egg production. By the age of 74 to 84 weeks, hens have exhausted their laying potential. Quality Egg's "spent hens" are brought to a processing plant in Canada, where they're "rendered" for human consumption or sold to New York live markets, where consumers go to have chickens dressed in front of them.

Once a house is depopulated, Maine mandates that it remain empty for 10 days after the last bird was removed. Then, all the feed and water are removed. Plant workers remove all intruder animals. The house then goes through a period of intensive rodent baiting—using devices called "steel cats" that catch mice so that they can be counted. No new hens are allowed inside until mouse counts are acceptable. During this period, houses are also tested for SE. If positive, the facility must be cleaned of all visible manure—sometimes several feet accumulate in the deep-pit houses. Then the whole building will be thoroughly disinfected and fumigated.

The rest of the country hasn't adopted standards as strict as Maine's. Hoenig said that the FDA rules are more lax: they only mandate that eggs from positive houses be "diverted" for the life of the flock—sent, in other words, to the egg breaker for pasteurization and eventual use in processed and fast foods. The FDA does not require end-of-production environmental testing for SE.

Pullets, the young birds that grow into laying hens, are shipped in from breeders who test and certify their animals are SE-free; still, birds are tested monthly after they arrive at the facilities. The FDA mandates that flocks be tested for SE between weeks 14 to 16 and 40 to 45; Maine, under Hoenig's direction, has added another mandatory test phase at week 12.

NEXT: Intensified inspections, and the Maine facility's history of health and labor violations

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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