Timeline of Shame: Decades of DeCoster Egg Factory Violations


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February 20, 1985: The Department of Labor orders DeCoster Egg Farms to pay over $200,000 in back wages as a result of the civil suit brought in May 1980. The court orders also "prohibit the defendants from further minimum wage, overtime, recordkeeping, and child labor violations."

Spring 1985: Acton Foodservices Corporation can no longer afford to pay its debts and simply stops feeding the 3.5 million chickens at DeCoster Egg Farms. Jack DeCoster repossesses the birds and begins filling the troughs again. Acton prepares to file for bankruptcy. On May 22, 1985 DeCoster is the high bidder at auction and buys back his birds. On June 20, 1985, he buys back the farm's real estate and equipment. The egg mogul has reclaimed his charter business.

February 1987: A fire in the Turner henhouses kills 100,000 birds. "Normally, to bury 100,000 birds requires a few hours with a backhoe in the field, and you bury them," Tierney told me. "They're not toxic, they don't contain chemicals—you just bury them, nothing illegal about it." DeCoster, however, decides to leave his birds out in the open. By May, they start to emit horrific odors, upsetting neighbors. It takes a suit in May 1997 to get DeCoster Egg Farms to bury the birds. "It was indicative of an attitude," Tierney said. "They just don't care."

June 21, 1988: New York State embargoes DeCoster eggs raised in Maryland and Maine facilities after three Salmonella outbreaks in the state are traced to the company's eggs. During one outbreak, 500 New Yorkers are hospitalized, and 11 die. DeCoster has to dispose of at least 200,000 contaminated hens. To reverse the embargo, commercial egg producers in Maine agree to greater oversight under direction of Dr. Donald Hoenig, Maine's state veterinarian.

February 5, 1993: Homero Ramirez, a DeCoster manager, is charged with knowingly recruiting 17 illegal aliens to Turner facilities and helping them obtain false identification documents.

January 23, 1995: The state of Maine wins a civil suit against DeCoster Egg Farms, saying that the company is in violation of the Maine Civil Rights and Unfair Practices Act. The Maine Supreme Court finds that Latino workers, housed in a squalid, DeCoster-owned trailer park as a condition of their employment, had been barred access to legal counsel as a matter of policy by company employees. Testimony establishes that DeCoster employees "threatened, intimidated, and harassed" legal aid workers who entered the park beginning in 1989. On one occasion, they physically blocked a Rural Community Action Ministry worker from leaving the facility until police arrived and threatened arrest. On another occasion, a DeCoster supervisor threatened: "[if] you come back [to the trailer park], we will take you out." As a result, RCAM and Pine Tree Legal Assistants "discontinued their outreach services to DeCoster's employees." The suit rules that DeCoster cannot legally control admittance to the housing complex.

February 9, 1996: The Portland Press Herald reports that federal regulators have proposed levying an $80,000 fine against DeCoster Feed Mill in Leed, Maine. Steve Scarlatta, a contract employee, was welding inside a feed bin when he was killed by an explosion. The bins contained explosive concentrations of dust; OSHA says DeCoster did not warn contracted employees about the potential hazard.

July 12, 1996: Because of the large number of workers' compensation claims filed against DeCoster Egg Farms, OSHA begins an investigation of the company that results in a historic $3.6 million citation for a multitude of "egregious and willful violations of health and safety and wage and hour laws." At the time, the Turner operation's estimated annual sales are more than $40 million. OSHA cites 33 instances since 1993 in which DeCoster failed to record injuries or improperly recorded them; the agency decides to stop letting DeCoster self-report and takes a look themselves.

The largest single fine is for "unguarded machines"—37 citations at $40,000 each, for a total proposed penalty of $1,480,000. But the citation includes a litany of other serious but less costly violations, including "exposed live electrical parts and ungrounded machinery" ($70,000), "overexposures to air contaminants and lack of suitable respiratory protection," "lack of prompt medical care," "failure to provide personal protective equipment," and "noise overexposures" ($40,000 each).

July 19, 1996: Shaw's supermarkets in Maine stop buying DeCoster eggs, a reaction to the OSHA citation. Three other Maine supermarket chains follow suit in the next months.

February 8, 1997: As a result of pesticide-handling violations in Turner, OSHA adds over $100,000 to the pending multi-million-dollar fine. Workers instructed to make flypaper to control the swarms of black flies, OSHA reports, did not have proper training or safety equipment. The Portland Press Herald reports that "workers spent hours dipping masking tape into bins of yellow crystallized pesticide." The federal investigations began after two workers complained that exposure to the chemicals caused them to suffer from nosebleeds, migraines, and vomiting.

NEXT: 1997 - Present: "As astonishing as it is unacceptable"

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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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