Congress questions egg producers on recall

ap photo of eggs on shelf with safety noticeTwo of more than 1,500 consumers sickened by salmonella contamination that prompted the recall of 500 million eggs told a Congressional committee their horror stories today as officials of two egg companies apologized to legislators skeptical they had really reformed.

"What we learned about the two Iowa egg operations that produced the tainted eggs paint a very disturbing picture of egg production in American," said Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., chairman of the panel of the House Energy and Commerce Committee holding the hearing, citing evidence uncovered by the panel of repeated contamination problems over the year.

During the hearing, lawmakers repeatedly castigated senators for failing so far to pass legislation to improve food safety, and questioned company officials, one of whom declined to testify. It was the testimony by Sarah Lewis, a 30-year-old California mother of two, and Carol Lobato, a 77-year-old grandmother, that showcased the very personal costs of the contamination.

Lewis, the mother of two from California, said she became so sick after eating part of a custard tart at a college graduation banquet for her sister in May that she had to be repeatedly hospitalized, scaring not only her, but her young children who cried when she left, cried when they had to leave her in the hospital and cried when she went back in.

She described the illness to a panel of the House Energy and Commerce as including a stay in the intensive care unit, critical heart care and said she is still taking medicine.

"I have a little old lady pill box that I still take every day," she said. "I still have severe cramping diarrhea, fevers and also the stress and fear that my salmonella is still in my body," said Lewis, whose sister was also sickened. "Every day when I have to leave for work my youngest daughter still cries thinking mommy has to go back to the hospital."

Lobato said her illness hit after she tried a rattlesnake cake appetizer at a suburban Denver restaurant that specializes in wild game food at a dinner she and her husband had with a grandson.

The next day, after experiencing vomiting and diarrhea, she went to the emergency room. That was followed with hospitalization for a variety of symptoms including septic shock.

"The salmonella infection is not over for me. I have lost my stamina. I often experience indigestion and it is difficult for me to enjoy certain foods," she said. "I feel tired and rest during the day. My doctors told me I almost certainly would have died without aggressive intervention."

"Please make our foods safer," she asked Congress.

Two officials of Wright County Eggs, one of two companies at the center of the recall, offered apologies.

"We were horrified to learn our eggs may have made people sick. We apologize to all these people," said Austin DeCoster, owner of Wright County Egg.

He blamed both this and past problems with contamination in facilities in Maryland and elsewhere on the company's growth from a small operation into a gigantic one.

"Unfortunately, we got big but were still acting like we were small," he said.

DeCoster's son, Peter, who is the company's chief operating officer, said the company was "stunned" to learn of the contamination in part because the company had taken some extra steps including inoculation of hens. He said the company believes the salmonella came from contaminated feed, but acknowledged other problems at the hen houses cited by Food and Drug Administration inspectors, including evidence of rodents, maggots, and hen houses being partially open to the outside.

He blamed the opening problems on damage caused by winter weather in Iowa and the presence of a nearly 7-foot high pile of manure on delays of a local recycler to make a pick up. He also said the company had made major changes to see the problems didn't happen again.

While Orland Bethel, president of Hillandale Farms, pleaded his Fifth Amendment right and declined to testify, Duane Mangskau, the company's production representative, said the company was "shocked" by the allegation of contamination and had also taken steps to redouble safety efforts.

Lawmakers repeatedly questioned Wright County's commitment to change.

"DeCoster farms have had warning after warning," said Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., chairman of the full Energy and
Commerce Committee.

Lawmakers also questioned senators' inability to act on new legislation that the House approved more than a year ago to give the FDA additional authority to order recalls and track food problems. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has blamed Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., for the holdup, a charge Coburn has denied.

Lawmakers also expressed regret about the problems.

"Growing up in Iowa, I don't remember buying eggs at the store," said Rep. Bruce Braley, D-Iowa. "We drove out to the country and bought them right off the farm from the mothers and grandmothers of the kids we went to school with. We dyed them at Easter and threw them on Halloween and we never ever imagined they could cause life-threatening illness or kill. That's why the recent revelations of an incomprehensible half billion egg recall originating in my home state was so disturbing."
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