Imagine that you are Peter DeCoster, chief operating officer for Wright County Egg Farms, which produced most of the eggs recalled in the salmonella outbreak. On the morning you are to testify before the House Energy and Commerce oversight and investigations subcommittee, a Page One story in the New York Times points out that a precursor to this family-owned operation called DeCoster Egg Farms was, under the operation of your father, Austin “Jack” DeCoster, largely responsible for an earlier salmonella epidemic in the 1980s. (It’s already been demonstrated that DeCoster family operations occasioned many previous regulatory controversies.) Now the DeCosters are the major player in the largest recorded salmonella outbreak since the government started tracking them in the early 1970s, and they have to explain themselves to an angry public.
What do you do? You blame your feed supplier!
“At this time,” DeCoster told the committee, “we cannot be absolutely certain of the root cause of the contamination of eggs we produced. However, the committee may want to know that we view the most likely root cause of contamination to be meat and bone meal that was an ingredient in our feed.”
Preparation of the chicken feed used at Wright County Egg Farms, DeCoster explained, involves
cooking carcasses to a temperature that would eliminate [salmonella]. However, as always in food safety matters, there is potential for re-contamination, either at the rendering facility, in transportation from the rendering facility or, subsequently, after the meat and bone meal is delivered to Wright County Egg. In particular, contaminated meat and bone meal that entered our bin for that ingredient could have contaminated the bin and the additional meat and bone meal that was subsequently added to the bin.
The members of the oversight and investigations subcommittee are not experts on food safety. If DeCoster wants to blame his supplier, or the trucks that brought the feed in from the supplier, there’s little they can do to disprove him. So it fell to Joshua Sharfstein, principal deputy commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, to point out (after most reporters had already filed their stories) that an FDA inspection of Wright County Eggs’ Iowa chicken houses conducted Aug. 12-30 identified “multiple” possible sources for the salmonella outbreak, including rodent infestations, piles of dead hens, standing water, live and dead flies “too numerous to count,” and uncaged birds climbing a manure pile so high that its weight pushed open a henhouse door. Many of these conditions violated an FDA egg-safety rule—its first-ever to prevent salmonella outbreaks—that went into effect the month before.
Blaming the supplier was one of three damage-control strategies employed by egg producers at the hearing. Strategy Two was to make sure Peter DeCoster’s father, Jack DeCoster, said as little as was humanly possible. Jack gave a brief prepared statement to the committee blaming the company’s past troubles on the fact that “we got big quite a while before we stopped acting like we were small. … We were big before we started adopting sophisticated procedures to be sure we met all of the government requirements.” After that, whenever a question was posed to Jack, Peter would try to answer the question himself, prompting committee members to interject that they weren’t asking him, they were asking his dad, a crusty old tycoon with a thick Down East accent and defiant mien (“We have a certain way we handle flies, we have a certain way we handle mice”) whose lousy regulatory record made him a better punching bag.
Strategy Three was employed by Orland Bethel, president of Hillandale Farms, another company that recalled eggs. This strategy, not unknown to businessmen embroiled in scandal who are called before a congressional committee, was to take the Fifth. It was done, a Hillandale press release explained, “out of an abundance of caution” on the part of Bethel’s lawyer. The press release (which I assume we may take as Bethel’s unofficial testimony) emphasized that Hillandale “has never before had a recall of its eggs,” and that the only Hillandale facility whose eggs tested positive for salmonella was one in Alden, Iowa, that happens to be owned by … Wright County Egg Farms. Hillandale, the press release said, “has severed its relationship” with that facility “and will no longer buy or market eggs” from it. At the hearing, ranking committee member Michael Burgess, R-Texas, quoted an e-mail Bethel sent on Aug. 31 stating “Hillandale needs to totally dissociate itself from Jack and it has to be real.” Burgess asked: Did you mean Jack DeCoster? (A similar e-mail Bethel sent the day before made it pretty clear he did.) “I respectfully decline to answer the question based on the protection afforded to me under the Fifth Amendment,” Bethel replied.
While Bethel and DeCoster père et fils bobbed and weaved to avoid blame for the salmonella outbreak, committee Republicans did much the same. Their party appeared to be culpable in two ways.
First, and most damningly, it was the Bush White House’s fault that the FDA’s first-ever egg-safety rule to prevent salmonella outbreaks only went into effect two months ago. The Clinton administration first proposed it back in 1999, but the Bush White House dragged its feet, and five more years passed before Bush’s FDA produced a proposed rule. * It never produced a final rule at all. William Hubbard, who was an associate FDA commissioner from 1991 to 2005, explained last month to the New Republic’s Jonathan Cohn what happened:
The FDA simply couldn’t get through to the White House. They were very hostile to regulation. … I was told that each time FDA tried to get the rule cleared through OMB, the response was that there were “not enough bodies in the street,”—that the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths did not rise to the level to justify greater regulation of egg producers. Obviously, public health officials felt strongly that there was a strong justification, but the prevailing attitude at the time within the administration was that regulation was an evil that should be avoided unless there was a compelling argument for government action.
The FDA’s Sharfstein quoted Hubbard’s damning comment at the hearing. No Republican member attempted to dispute it.
The second way Republicans are culpable is that Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., is blocking a House-passed food safety bill from coming to the floor. When Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., complained at the hearing that Coburn “is holding this vital legislation hostage in the Senate,” the Republican Burgess blew a gasket. “We have to sit here and listen to a member of the Senate be excoriated,” he said. The fault, Burgess argued, lay not with Coburn but with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who hasn’t brought the bill to the floor. Coburn, Burgess said, is “not the problem. Yeah, he may become the problem if the bill is brought to the floor.” That “may” was superfluous. Coburn has stated his opposition to the bill (among his objections is that “instead of trusting industry and the free-market, [it] implies that complying with government standards is the best way to keep consumers safe” [!]) and signaled his intention to block it. Which presumably is why Reid hasn’t brought it to the floor. Burgess, as it happens, voted for the bill in the House but nonetheless insisted on disputing Waxman even after the subcommittee chairman, Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., declared his comments out of order and cut Burgess’ microphone off (which in turn prompted Coburn to denounce the Democrats’ “partisan demagoguery”).
The kerfuffle had the effect of deflecting attention away from howthe food-safety bill might help prevent future salmonella outbreaks. The answer provided by the FDA’s Sharfstein was that the bill would give the FDA authority to requirefood-safety recalls (today, amazingly, it may only requestcompanies to recall products) and that it would stiffen civil and criminal penalties for noncompliance. In addition, Sharfstein said, it would extend to other food products some of the protections extended to eggs under the July salmonella rule.
A larger question no one dared raise was why egg-related salmonella outbreaks were seldom observed before 1970. The answer, according to Michael “Omnivore’s Dilemma” Pollan, is that’s about when large-scale farmers started jamming too many chickens into cages to boost production. I might write that off as typical slow-food-movement sentimentality if the DeCosters hadn’t inadvertently endorsed the same view. Again and again they defended themselves at the hearing by saying, in effect, of coursethe FDA inspectors found some chickens in unsanitary conditions; do you have any idea how many chickens we have?Over to you, Alice Waters.
Correction, Sept. 23, 2010: An earlier version of this column asserted that the Bush administration spent five years devising the proposed rule. In fact, it spent three (2001-04). (Return to the corrected sentence.)
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