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.
1949: Jack DeCoster, age 16, first takes responsibility for 150 hens on his family's farm in Turner. "He started with a chicken coop when he was in high school," James Tierney, who repeatedly prosecuted DeCoster in the '80s as Maine's District Attorney, told me. "Chickens reproduce, so he'd get more eggs, and collect the eggs himself, and he grew that way." Locals speak with a mixture of awe and scorn about the man who built an empire from scratch in their backyards—and who has also shown, as one resident told me, a willingness to "screw even his best friend to the wall for a buck." Another resident, who's known DeCoster all her life, told me, "It was always his ambition—to be the largest egg producer. He just kept going and going, until he got too big. Out-of-control big."
1961: Having grown his operation steadily every year, DeCoster founds Quality Egg in Turner, the business that will grow into the modern-day giant.
1967: DeCoster begins building his first commercial barn across the street, large enough to hold 30,000 hens. Residents recall the late '60s and early '70s as a period of unchecked expansion, with DeCoster putting up as many buildings as possible, whether or not he had state approval.
Spring 1975: James Tierney, then Majority Leader in the Maine's State Legislature, proposes legislation meant to force DeCoster to adhere to minimum wage laws. In Maine, some agricultural companies are exempt from minimum wage, but Tierney's new law "created an exemption from the exemption"—any farm that has more than 300,000 laying birds now has to pay all workers minimum wage. The new rules, he told me, specifically targeted DeCoster, whom Tierney felt was running an assembly-line-based factory operation and not a traditional farm. The bill passed, and by 1976, DeCoster was forced to pay the minimum wage. Tierney cites it as a watershed moment—after the legislation, DeCoster began to look for property in other states.
1976: DeCoster is fined $16,500 by government regulators who show that Quality Egg truckers, under DeCoster's supervision, have been doctoring their log books. The logs claim truckers have worked only the federal limit of hours—when they have actually worked far longer shifts.
November 1978: 27 DeCoster employees are fired after walking out in protest of low wages and poor working conditions. A Maine judge decrees that the workers be restored to their roles, and orders DeCoster to desist "interfering with or restraining" their attempts to unionize.
May 1979: Though Maine allows child labor in agricultural contexts, lawmakers vote to ban child labor "involving hazardous machinery" for industrial food processing as a result of alleged injuries on DeCoster's premises. DeCoster publicly comes out against the measure, according to The Washington Post, saying he has been unfairly targeted.
June 1979: Twenty-seven Turner residents file a $5 million suit against DeCoster for creating a widespread beetle infestation that spread to their homes. Some of the plaintiffs report invasions of thousands of beetles. DeCoster brought the insects in to help control growing fly problems in his chicken houses' manure pits. "We didn't know they would leave the [laying] houses," The Washington Post quotes him as saying.
August 30, 1979: Facing increasing legal scrutiny in Maine, DeCoster announces the sale of DeCoster Egg Farms, Inc. to Acton Food Services Corporation. The Massachusetts-based snack-food and cable television company buys DeCoster's Maine facilities, including livestock and machinery, for $17.2 million. DeCoster keeps a hand in the region with Maine Egg Producers, a spin-off company; his name is mentioned specifically in litigation during this period. His full-time focus becomes a newly built Maryland operation.
1980: On Route 4 in Turner, across from DeCoster's facilities, the fly problem has become severe. Flies are so thick in the summer that even mundane tasks like unloading groceries become unbearably arduous. Outdoor spaces like pools and picnic tables are unusable. "Sometimes the flies would cover my screen door completely, or the whole back wall of my house," Jerry Moulin, who eventually became lead plaintiff in a related 2002 environmental suit against DeCoster told me. Spraying and flypaper don't help. A group of residents begins to reach out to their local governments, to no avail. "We went to the state agriculture department, and they were no help to us," another future plaintiff, who wanted to be quoted anonymously, told me. "We went to our town, state, and federal representatives—nobody would help us. At our selectman meetings, we would at times almost be laughed at by those officials." In her view, DeCoster's big tax dollars were a boon in the eyes of regulators—no one wanted to get in the way.
May 2, 1980: The U.S. Department of Labor files a civil action against DeCoster Egg Farms, Inc. and Maine Egg Producers, and Jack DeCoster is also named personally in the suit. The complaint alleges that the defendants "have violated the minimum wage, overtime and record-keeping provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act since May 1st, 1977, and, since January 29, 1978, have violated provisions of the Act prohibiting the use of oppressive child labor." One portion of the case accuses DeCoster of employing five 11-year-olds and a 9-year-old in his facilities.
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.
May 19, 1997: DeCoster settles with OSHA and agrees to pay $2 million of the $3,805,000 in penalties original levied. The settlement states that DeCoster will undergo a surprise inspection within 12 months, and if 90 percent of the reported violations are not found to have abated, the remainder of the sum will be charged.
May 18, 1998: The Mexican government brings a civil suit against three DeCoster-owned egg companies in Maine, claiming that the operations chronically discriminate against Mexican workers. The suit alleges that Latino workers routinely face worse housing and work conditions. Karen Frink Wolf, a Portland lawyer who worked on the case, told me that there were "multiple families living in single-family trailers, no insect protection on the windows, no clean water, bad plumbing conditions. On the working side, employees alleged that they didn't have the ability to wash down, they didn't have masks for air quality or good protective gear, [there were] electrical issues that were unsafe—it kind of ran the gamut."
2002: Twenty-seven people, all of whom owned property near the DeCoster Egg Farms before the commercial henhouses were built, bring a suit because the odor of manure and massive swarms of flies have hurt their property values and quality of life. "It's a nightmare," one plaintiff told me. "To this day, we can't use our backyards. We can't have barbecues outside. There are times that the odor is horrible. We can't sell our properties. We feel like prisoners."
Mark Roberts, the attorney who took on the suit, told me, "We did an investigation, and what we found was he [DeCoster] had some storage sheds that were just full of manures and dead chickens. And in the deep-pit houses, the pits were knee-deep in manure, doors were literally bulging. We settled, and as part of the settlement we also got control of his manure practices." Gradually, the plaintiffs forced DeCoster to install huge fans in the chicken houses' manure pits, which dried the waste and kept flies away. Plaintiffs over a mile from the facilities told me they'd noticed a marked difference in fly density; those who live within half a mile had not noticed a difference until this summer, which seemed slightly better.
March 2, 2004: After years of litigation, DeCoster settles in the 1998 civil suit brought by the Mexican government. $3.2 million is divided among almost 700 claimants.
July 30, 2007: A tractor-trailer owned by Maine Contract Farming rolls and spills 24 tons of chicken manure on a public road in Norridgewock, Maine.
August 12, 2008: Maine Contract farming faces a $150,000 fine for forcing employees to work inside and on top of a partially collapsed building. The company did not assess structural integrity before sending its workers to clear snow and ice from the damaged roof while others collected eggs inside. "Those employees working inside the building were in danger of being struck by collapsing sections of its roof, walls, and framing members, while those employees shoveling snow and ice atop the pitched roof lacked protection against falls of up to 22 feet," William Coffin, OSHA's Maine representative, reports. "This disregard for basic, commonsense safety procedures and employee protections is as astonishing as it is unacceptable."
April 2, 2009: An animal rights group, Mercy for Animals, arranges for an undercover reporter to document animal abuses at Quality Egg in Turner. The video, which is posted online, shows workers killing birds by swinging their necks, workers kicking wounded birds into manure pits to die, badly overstuffed cages, live birds thrown in trash cans, and a litany of other abuses. In response, Maine State Veterinarian Don Hoenig, has the state of Maine file suit against Quality Egg. Heenig also insists that the facility bring in more oversight. He hires a poultry expert to help oversee animal husbandry and mandates animal sensitivity training for plant workers.
June 2010: Maine Contract Farming, who owns the birds (but not the facilities) at Quality Egg, settles for 10 counts of animal cruelty related to the 2009 case, at a penalty of $2,500 per case. The company also agreed to pay a one-time sum of $100,000 to the state government to help pay for increased animal husbandry oversight in the future.
Finally, what everyone knows: In August 2010, 550 million eggs linked to two DeCoster-owned facilities in Iowa were recalled. The details released by the FDA were eerily familiar: unsafe electrical conditions, improperly kept manure, infestations of mice and maggots and flies, sick hens. The Iowa barns, largely self-policed, look exactly like the Turner barns before Maine litigation tightened oversight. DeCoster's string of misdoings in other states—environmental violations, stunning management abuses, and dangerous conditions for workers and animals—show that in his 1996 OSHA ruling, the former Labor Secretary Robert Reich was prophetic when he denounced DeCoster as a "habitual violator."
No one I spoke with in Maine expressed surprise that the DeCoster was finally named as the culprit in this year's outbreak. The man who is perhaps the country's largest egg producer has been allowed to menace the country like a robber baron, holding residents in perpetual fear and discomfort while he does exactly as he pleases. "He goes along for a little while, and then he'll slip back into past practices," one resident who did not wish to be named in this article told me. We can only wait to see if now, after a national outrage, there will be a next time and a time after that.