Salmonella, mounds of excrement, and hefty citations are nothing new to Jack DeCoster, whose Iowa henhouses were blamed for last month's nationwide egg recall. DeCoster has done business in Turner, Maine, his hometown, for over 60 years—and has incurred a decades-long list of violations there. DeCoster's history of legal cases in Maine demonstrates that the more recent labor, environmental, and public health offenses are part of a long pattern that continues today, and in several states.
This chronology—the result of interviews with dozens of people with firsthand knowledge of DeCoster's track record in Maine and scouring through angry headlines and forgotten court records that have faded from public view—shows how it all began. What emerged from my interviews and research is a pattern of offenses—a stubborn, company-wide refusal to abide by regulations, no matter how many times DeCoster was caught and no matter how many times Maine's alert litigators tried to force constraints on a chronically law-breaking mogul. "You can only get to that man," one Turner resident who has known Jack DeCoster all her life, said to me, "if you get to his pocketbook. Otherwise, you won't get anything."
DeCoster has left a trail of illness, injury, mistreatment, and death in his wake
Many of the incidents here—aside from the major national stories like the historic OSHA fine—have not been reported on since they first happened. Some of the smaller infractions have never been reported in the national press, and some have not been reported at all. Tracking DeCoster's history of past offenses is no easy task. Court documents are easily available only for cases from the past 25 years or so. Go back any farther, and the records might as well be lost. A clerk at the Maine District Court in Bangor told me that I was welcome to look at their public records, but I'd have to leaf through pages and pages of unrelated material in order to find anything.
Furthermore, DeCoster's own strategy has made tracking him more difficult: by routinely settling civil cases before they reach a verdict, he has lowered the profile of his offenses—and sometimes even succeeded in making them confidential. "DeCoster likes to settle," Donald Fontaine, a Maine labor lawyer who has gone head-to-head with Quality Egg many times, told me. "He'll wait and see how far something goes, and then he'll settle out of court. There are very few [court] decisions." Many of the lawyers I spoke with were barred from telling me about the specifics of suits they had been involved in that ended in settlements; a half-dozen lawyers flatly refused to speak on the record, because of the complex legal issues involved.
But I did interview people who have lived a mile from the Turner farm for decades, their whole lives spent in the shadow of DeCoster's activities, and who spoke freely. I spoke with the lawyers who have prosecuted DeCoster and his businesses on a spate of charges—labor and wage violations, environmental violations, personal injury suits, civil rights infractions.
As DeCoster's egg empire has grown, a look at the past litigation should show the crucial role of lawyers and policy-makers in checking the vast power of large industrial-agricultural operators. Maine has had several decades more to force DeCoster into compliance than other states. And its investigators and prosecutors have tried for a long time. "If they'd done in Iowa what we made them do in Maine," Mark Roberts, a lawyer who fought DeCoster on behalf of Turner residents, told me, "they wouldn't have any of those problems—massive amounts of manure, flies, dead chickens. That's what the place was like in Maine before we sued."
DeCoster has left a trail of illness, injury, mistreatment, and death in his wake for decades. That he has been left to police himself for so long is a stunning testament to the failure of federal regulators.
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