This is agribusiness: exploiting workers and poisoning consumers

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If the theory of ‘consumer sovereignty’ is correct, then U.S. consumers must want salmonella in their omelets, and the DeCoster agribusiness operation, a habitual violator of safety, environment and other laws, is just responding to market demand.

Excerpts from an article by Alec MacGillis, Washington Post, August 22, 2010

The Iowa egg producer that federal officials say is at the center of a salmonella outbreak and recalls of more than a half-billion eggs has repeatedly paid fines and settled complaints over health and safety violations and allegations ranging from maintaining a “sexually hostile work environment” to abusing the hens that lay the eggs.

In the past 20 years, according to the public record, the DeCoster family operation, one of the 10 largest egg producers in the country, has withstood a string of reprimands, penalties and complaints about its performance in several states.

In June, for instance, the family agreed to pay a $34,675 fine stemming from allegations of animal cruelty against hens in its 5 million-bird Maine facility. An animal rights group used a hidden camera to document hens suffocating in garbage cans, twirled by their necks , kicked into manure pits to drown and hanging by their feet over conveyer belts. …

DeCoster owns Wright County Egg in Iowa, which last week recalled 380 million eggs distributed nationwide. A federal investigation into 26 outbreaks of salmonella enteritidis, the second-leading cause of food-borne illness, found that 15 of the outbreaks pointed to Wright County Egg.

The DeCoster family also has close ties to Hillandale Farms of Iowa, which on Friday recalled 170 million eggs distributed to 14 states in the Midwest and West after scientists in Minnesota linked one salmonella outbreak to Hillandale. Wright County Egg and Hillandale share suppliers of young chickens and feed, and the DeCoster family put up the money for Hillandale’s founder to purchase Ohio Fresh Eggs, the largest operation in that state….

As the family’s holdings have expanded, so has the list of allegations against it:

  • In 1996, DeCoster was fined $3.6 million for health and safety violations at the family’s Turner egg farm, which then-Labor Secretary Robert Reich termed “as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen.” Regulators found that workers had been forced to handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands and to live in filthy trailers.
  • In 1999, the company paid $5 million to settle a class-action lawsuit involving unpaid overtime for 3,000 workers.
  • In 2001, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that DeCoster was a “repeat violator” of state environmental laws, citing violations involving the family’s hog-farming operations. The family was forbidden to expand its hog-farming interests in the state.
  • Also in 2001, DeCoster Farms of Iowa settled, for $1.5 million, a complaint brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that the company had subjected 11 undocumented female workers from Mexico to a “sexually hostile work environment,” including sexual assault and rape by supervisors.
  • In 2002, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fined the family’s Maine Contract Farming branch $345,810 for an array of violations. The same year, DeCoster Egg Farms of Maine paid $3.2 million to settle a lawsuit filed in 1998 by Mexican workers alleging discrimination in housing and working conditions. ….

Bill Marler, a Seattle lawyer who specializes in food safety cases and has already filed one suit in the current outbreak and expects to file another Monday, said the recalls would deal a huge financial blow to the company. But he noted that several companies involved in other major recalls in recent years — for peanuts, spinach and other products — have seen their sales bounce back.

“This may be the straw that breaks the camel’s back, but there are lots of companies with massive recalls . . . that go on their merry way,” he said.