Feathers are a-flyin' at two egg production companies at the center of the egg recall, with criminal investigators jumping into the fray and former USDA workers coming forward with tales of horror.
Two former Agriculture Department employees periodically assigned to grade eggs at the Wright County Egg farm over the course of nearly two decades said that their complaints of unsanitary conditions at the farm had been ignored by other USDA officials, according to the Associated Press. Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms last month issued a massive egg recall of more than 550 million eggs because of salmonella concerns.
Former USDA employees Robert and Deanna Arnold allege that they found dead chickens, mice and tools on the conveyer system as they graded eggs moving from the poultry house to the packing area. The USDA is responsible for the area where eggs are packed, while the Food and Drug Administration oversees the hen house where eggs are laid, according to the AP article.
Other unsanitary conditions included manure piled 40 feet high and, in some cases, leaking from buildings, the AP reports. But perhaps equally or more alarming are allegations that cartons of broken eggs that had been returned from stores were picked through so that unbroken eggs could be repackaged and shipped back out. In those cases, the eggs could be weeks old, the story notes.
Arnolds Say USDA Did Nothing
If USDA egg graders withhold their grading services because of unsanitary conditions, they're required to file a report. The Arnolds said they reported the problems of dead chickens on the conveyor belts and manure leaking from buildings, but nothing was done.
Meanwhile, criminal investigators from the Food and Drug Administration and the Justice Department have joined the investigation into the massive recall, an FDA spokeswoman says. On Tuesday, FDA investigators presented Hillandale Farms' office in New Hampton, Iowa, with a search warrant, says Hillandale spokeswoman Julie DeYoung. "We cooperated with them while they were on site," she says.
DeYoung notes that investigators spent their time at the company's office and didn't visit its two egg production centers. She declined to elaborate further on what investors sought at the office and whether they removed any computers or documents from the site.
The Hillandale search warrant has been sealed, according to the court that issued the document. It was not immediately clear whether Wright County Egg received a search warrant as well.
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney's office declined to disclose which agencies are present at Hillandale and Wright County Egg, what they're doing or whether they're using search warrants. Wright County Egg was not immediately available for comment.
A History of Legal Snags
The criminal investigation, which was first reported in The Wall Street Journal, follows an FDA disclosure last week that the salmonella from the tainted eggs matched the salmonella found in the chicken feed served up at both companies' farms. The chicken feed was supplied by Quality Eggs, which also owns Wright County Egg.
This is far from the first legal snag that Wright County Egg owner Austin "Jack" DeCoster has run into.USA Today last month posted a lengthy rundown of his past legal issues, including:
-In 1994, the state of Iowa assessed at least four separate penalties against DeCoster Farms for environmental violations, many of them involving hog waste.
-In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay $2 million in fines to settle citations brought in 1996 for health and safety violations at DeCoster's farm in Turner, Maine.
-In 2000, Iowa designated DeCoster a "habitual violator" of environmental regulations for problems that included hog manure runoff into waterways. The label made him subject to increased penalties and prohibited him from building new farms.
-In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a more than $1.5 million settlement of an employment discrimination lawsuit against DeCoster Farms on behalf of Mexican women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment, including rape, abuse and retaliation by some supervisory workers at DeCoster's Wright County plants.
-In June 2010, Maine Contract Farming, the successor company to DeCoster Egg Farms, agreed in state court to pay $25,000 in penalties and to make a one-time payment of $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture over animal cruelty allegations that were spurred by a hidden-camera investigation by an animal welfare organization.
But what can the FDA actually do? In an email interview, FDA spokesman Dick Thompson said the agency has the power to potentially shut down DeCoster's egg operations -- but only temporarily. "[The] FDA can seek an injunction under the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act based on violation of the egg rule. A court could issue an injunction prohibiting a firm from operating until certain conditions are met," he said in an email interview.