When Jack DeCoster was a high school sophomore, his father died and DeCoster inherited 100 chickens. By the time he graduated high school, the hard-working 4-H Club member had 2,500 laying hens in rural Maine. Twenty years after that, he was the undisputed brown egg king of New England, with more than 2.8 million laying hens and annual sales of $35 million. But when Myron Levin, a reporter for the Maine Times, covered DeCoster’s egg farm he discovered something else: The place had an unusual number of run-ins with the law.
Keep in mind, the Maine Times, a now-defunct weekly newspaper, visited DeCoster’s farm in 1977. That was nearly two decades before DeCoster was fined for health and safety violations that former Labor Secretary Robert Reich said represented an “agricultural sweatshop”; before DeCoster paid a landmark settlement with Mexico over worker discrimination claims; before he was banned from selling eggs in New York state after a salmonella outbreak in Maryland; before he paid $1.5 million in a settlement involving allegations of sexual harassment, including rape; and before South Dakota denied him permits to operate under a statute called the “bad actor” law.
Wherever DeCoster goes, litigation seems to follow him like a gaggle of clucking hens. Although you won’t see his name on any of the 32 million egg cartons recalled over suspected salmonella contamination, DeCoster owns Wright County Egg, one of two companies involved in the recent recall, and his company, Quality Egg LLC, supplied Hillandale Farms, the other firm involved, with hens and feed. (These eggs were then sold under labels including Albertson, Boomsma’s, Dutch Farms, Farm Fresh, Glenview, Hillandale, James Farms, Kemps, Lucerne, Lund, Mountain Dairy, Pacific Coast, Ralph's, Shoreland, Sunshine, Trafficanda, and Wholesome Farms.) So once again, the spotlight is on a man so immune to prosecution that he earned the nickname “Teflon Chicken Don.”
Over the last 50 years, as eggs went from being a “Sunday specialty to a daily staple” (in the words of Warren Belasco, author of Meals to Come), DeCoster fed the growing demand by cutting corners. While he might represent an especially “bad egg,” DeCoster is also a very public example of the systemic failure that has resulted from the government's policy of treating large agriculture businesses like family farms—often allowing them to operate under their own rules and regulations.
“This plant had never been inspected by anybody,” says Bill Marler, a lawyer and expert on foodborne illness litigation. “The [USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service] went in to grade eggs. The FDA didn’t have authority to inspect. So, here you’ve got a plant that’s got a systemic problem. It was three-month long problem, resulting in a recall of a half a billion eggs and poisoning thirteen-hundred people.”
The recent outbreak is also a function of poultry industry’s consolidation. DeCoster heads one of only 192 companies controlling 95 percent of the country’s 350 billion laying hens, according to The Washington Post. Many of those same companies manage the hen's rearing, feeding, and marketing. (An earlier study found that only five companies controlled the 800,000 birds used to breed these laying hens, which concentrates the risk even further because birds are usually infected with salmonella as young hens). While the Food and Drug Administration’s long-awaited “Egg Rule” went into effect in July—requiring farmers to buy young hens from suppliers who monitor for salmonella, establish better pest control, and refrigerate eggs within 36 hours, among other things—it’s unclear whether these changes would have given the government the necessary oversight and enforcement to prevent the outbreak anyway.
Some activists have suggested free-range or organic eggs as a safe alternative, but salmonella isn’t a food safety issue unique to battery-caged hens, or those birds confined to less than a square foot of space. Dr. Peter S. Holt, a scientist at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, warns against a large-scale shift to “alternative” cage systems in a forthcoming white paper: “There is no general consensus demonstrating the superiority of one housing situation over another regarding food safety and egg quality.” Whether chickens live in crowded barns with access to the outside, mice can still crap in their feed. Whether the birds can spread their wings or not, feces can still harbor bacteria and spread among the flock. Still, scientists suggest that smaller flocks (fewer than 10,000 hens) are less likely to harbor salmonella.
So few companies in so few places producing so much of the nation's food is why the social costs associated with cheap food production continue to be so high. Earlier this year, DeCoster made a rare court appearance, in which his former company, Maine Contract Farms (which is not involved in the recall), was fined less than a penny a bird for abuses documented by animals rights group Mercy for Animals. As the local paper, the Sun Journal, opined, the fine merely represented the cost of doing business and was too small a price to ensure future compliance. Let’s hope that changes the next time the courts put DeCoster under oath.