IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A judge should consider the "widespread harm" done by a major 2010 salmonella outbreak and the food safety lapses that preceded it in sentencing two egg industry executives whose company was responsible, prosecutors said Monday.
In punishing them next week, U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett should consider that Austin "Jack" DeCoster and his son Peter ran a massive egg production operation that "routinely disregarded food safety standards and practices," assistant U.S. Attorney Peter Deegan wrote in a sentencing memorandum.
Jack DeCoster, 80, of Turner, Maine, and 51-year-old Peter DeCoster, of Clarion, Iowa are scheduled to be sentenced April 13 by U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett in a federal courtroom in Sioux City, Iowa. Both pleaded guilty last year to introducing adulterated eggs into interstate commerce and face up to one year in jail.
Under the terms of the plea agreement, prosecutors did not ask for a specific term of jail, home confinement or probation. But the 14-page memo outlined illegal and unethical food safety practices that repeatedly happened on their watch, and argued the sentences should send a message to other corporate executives to "act responsibly when it comes to food safety."
The DeCosters and their company, Quality Egg, knew that their Iowa egg facilities were at risk for contamination long before the 2010 outbreak, which sickened thousands, Deegan argued.
While 1,939 reported illnesses were associated with the outbreak, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control estimates that up to 56,000 persons may have been sickened in all because most of the cases went unreported, his memo said. Patients who were poisoned by eating eggs purchased from stores or restaurants, reported diarrhea, fevers and abdominal cramps lasting several days.
As early as January 2006, testing on the company's dead layer hens revealed the existence of salmonella and other contaminants in their organs, Deegan wrote. Voluntary testing done from 2008 to 2010 showed that the number of positive tests for salmonella in the egg farms' environment and hens' organs continued to rise until the outbreak. The Decosters were "generally aware" of such test results but not that their eggs were actually contaminated, Deegan wrote.
The company hired experts in pest control and poultry disease who recommended vaccination and other measures, but those steps did not wipe out the contamination or prevent the illnesses, the memo said.
The outbreak led to an unprecedented August 2010 recall of 550 million eggs, gave Iowa's nation-leading egg production industry a public relations problem and sparked one of the most significant criminal investigations and prosecutions in a U.S. food poisoning case.
Quality Egg has pleaded guilty to introducing misbranded food into interstate commerce and bribing a public official. Prosecutors and defense lawyers have recommended the company pay a $6.8 million fine under a plea agreement, and the DeCosters pay $100,000 apiece. Bennett, who will also sentence the company next week, isn't bound by those recommendations.
Quality Egg admitted that workers knowingly shipped eggs with false processing and expiration dates to fool state regulators and retail customers about their age and bribed a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector at least twice to approve sales of poor quality eggs.
While there is conflicting evidence on when and how the DeCosters learned about the bribes, they illustrate "the contempt Quality Egg has shown for USDA's role in enforcing minimum quality standards for eggs," Deegan wrote. Similarly, the government has no evidence the DeCosters were aware of the mislabeling but that is "another example of Quality Egg's deliberate circumvention of food safety regulations through illegal conduct," he wrote.
Peter DeCoster's attorney asked for a sentence of probation Monday, arguing in his memo that his client took appropriate safety precautions before and during the outbreak and was unaware of the other misconduct. The father of three is also willing to do "significant community service" and be required to meet with salmonella victims as part of his sentence, defense attorney Stuart Dornan wrote.
"Such a sentence will be tough, on point, and unpleasant; but yet constructive for Peter and the community," he wrote.
Jack DeCoster's attorney filed his sentencing memorandum under court seal and didn't immediately return a message.