Salmonella-Tainted ‘Family Farm’ in the Spotlight — on Farm Aid’s 25th Anniversary

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REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

“We got big quite a while before we stopped acting like we were small,” said Austin “Jack” DeCoster, founder of Wright County Egg and the country’s eighth largest egg producer, during testimony Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee. What he meant was that his business had gotten sizable before he adopted measures to ensure that it met government safety guidelines.

DeCosters farms in Iowa contributed nearly 70% of the tainted 550 billion eggs that were recalled this summer and his farms in Maine have also been under investigation for egg contamination. The New York Times reports that Wright County Egg has been linked to numerous deadly outbreaks of salmonella poisoning over the last three decades. (More on Stalling On Food Safety)

Understanding what went wrong at the DeCoster farms is essential to preventing future outbreaks of foodborne illness. A bill to tighten farm safety regulations has already passed the House, but the earliest it can come before the Senate is November.

There’s a certain irony to the timing — for those of you who are up on your U.S. farm history: Farm Aid, Willie Nelson’s charity and advocacy group for family and small-scale farms, turned 25 today.

Despite its size, DeCoster’s operation is by definition a family farm. He inherited it from his father and now runs it with his two sons. But Wright County Egg is not exactly what you’d imagine when you think of the folkloric icon of American agriculture.

DeCoster’s father started an egg farm in Maine and died young, leaving 15-year-old Austin to support his mother and siblings with their 125-chicken brood. One hundred or so laying hens seems manageable, but DeCoster’s enterprise went from a small, sustainable farm to a major, industrial operation. It seems that this massive expansion exacerbated the company’s key problem: an outmoded attitude about health regulations and a lack of control over day-to-day management. The New York Times reports:

Peter DeCoster, who is Wright County Egg’s chief operating officer, is expected to tell the committee that the company failed to test its eggs for the presence of salmonella bacteria despite environmental tests that showed that his barns were contaminated because “our perception was that egg test results always would be negative,” according to his written testimony.

That American sense of independence, of mastery of the land, has a flip side, which is a cavalier approach to government regulation and the mentality that “outsiders” like the epidemiologists at the FDA don’t understand what they are talking about when it comes to good farming practice. (More on Photos: The French Farm: Beautiful but in Danger)

As serious and egregious as it was, the act of ignoring trace salmonella is certainly not the DeCoster group of farms’ only dysfunction. Since 1996, the company has regularly settled lawsuits relating to animal cruelty, labor disputes and sexual assault charges.

Most family — or corporate — farms don’t operate this way. For a more heartening portrait of agricultural America, Food Aid provides profiles of some of the small-scale farmers who receive their help.

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