Egg Producer in Salmonella Scare Passed FDA Inspection in May, Owner Says

An Iowa producer of eggs linked to a salmonella outbreak that sickened more than 1,600 people said chicken feed ingredients from an outside supplier were the likely source of the contamination.

Wright County Egg is “terribly sorry” its eggs may have made people sick, and has made “sweeping biosecurity changes” to prevent future contamination, Peter DeCoster, the closely held company’s chief operating officer, said today at a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee hearing.

Wright, based in Galt, Iowa, recalled 380 million eggs last month. Another 170 million eggs were pulled from the market by Hillandale Farms of Iowa, based in New Hampton. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said 1,608 illnesses reported since May 1 may be linked to the eggs.

“We view the most likely root cause of contamination to be meat and bone meal that was an ingredient in our feed,” DeCoster told the panel. A May inspection by regulators didn’t reveal deficiencies at Wright’s chicken feed mill, he said.

Rodents and improperly handled manure were among the health violations found by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration at both farms last month. House investigators found evidence of salmonella problems at Wright County Egg dating to 2008, lawmakers said Sept. 15.

No Decision

The FDA hasn’t concluded that chicken feed was the source of the contamination, Joshua Sharfstein, the agency’s principal deputy commissioner, told lawmakers today.

“We’re not ruling anything out and we’re continuing to look,” Sharfstein said after the hearing, when asked by reporters whether the FDA had identified a source.

Pointing to a feed-ingredient supplier as a possible source of the contamination is “refusing to take responsibility,” Representative Henry Waxman, the Democrat who chairs the Energy and Commerce Committee, said today at the hearing. Wright County Egg has operated with “a shocking level of disregard for basic food safety controls,” he said.

Documents obtained by Congress show the Wright farm was contaminated with traces of salmonella for at least two years, said Representative Bart Stupak of Michigan, a Democrat who heads the panel’s oversight subcommittee. About 426 environmental samples collected at the facility since 2008 tested positive for the bacteria, and 73 of them were “potentially positive” for the strain identified in the outbreak, Stupak said.

Egg Testing

Positive environmental samples for salmonella didn’t prompt Wright to test eggs for the bacteria, DeCoster said.

“Experts advised that egg testing is a poor indicator of the presence” of salmonella, he said. “Our perception was that egg test results always would be negative.”

Wright now follows regulations imposed by the FDA in July that requires testing of eggs after an environmental test finds salmonella, DeCoster said.

Orland Bethel, president of Hillandale Farms of Iowa, declined to answer lawmakers’ questions about the contamination of eggs at his facility, invoking his Fifth Amendment right to protect himself from self-incrimination.

Another Hillandale official told lawmakers the recall has forced the company to “take a hard look” at its operations.

“It is too bad that this occurred and we do feel sorry for any inconvenience and cost that it has caused the industry,” Duane Mangskau, a production representative of closely held Hillandale, said at today’s hearing. “Even if the source of the salmonella illness is never confirmed, where we have fallen short in Iowa we are committed to improving our operations.”

Austin “Jack” DeCoster, the owner of Wright County Egg, said the company was “horrified” to learn of the outbreak.

“We apologize to everyone who may have been sickened by eating our eggs,” Austin DeCoster, who is Peter DeCoster’s father, told the panel. “I have prayed several times each day for all of these people for improved health.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Jeffrey Young in Washington at jyoung89@bloomberg.net; Molly Peterson in Washington at mpeterson9@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Adriel Bettelheim at abettelheim@bloomberg.net

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