Following up on yesterday’s post, the recall of half a billion Iowa-produced eggs continues to reverberate in Iowa politics.
Republican Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey still denies that he could have done more to ensure food safety regulations were followed at the DeCoster facilities. Northey’s opponent, Francis Thicke, has said feed mill inspections “could have identified a strain of Salmonella Enteritidis before 1,470 Americans were sickened and a half billion eggs were recalled.”
Meanwhile, the non-profit Food Democracy Now announced that two major supermarket chains have agreed to stop selling eggs produced by Jack DeCoster’s operations.
Details and more links are after the jump.
Northey has said little in public since the salmonella outbreak became national news, and he didn’t respond directly to the charges Thicke made yesterday. Northey sent a campaign staffer to speak to Rod Boshart:
Dustin Vande Hoef, Northey’s campaign spokesman, said the Iowa code authorizes the state agriculture department to license and inspect commercial feed mills that sell or distribute feed, but it does not apply to private individuals that mix feed for their own animals.
“The law makes no distinction based on size and gives no authority for the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture to pick-and-choose private feed mills to inspect,” he said.
“It is very disconcerting that a candidate for Iowa Secretary of Agriculture would advocate stepping beyond the department’s legal authority and violating private property rights,” Vande Hoef said. “In Mr. Thicke’s statement, he expresses a desire to target private farmer feed mills based on size, and the definition of what constitutes ‘large’ would rest with him alone and have nothing to do with what the law actually says.”
Thicke reacted with a new statement today:
“Mr. Northey should reread Iowa Code Chapter 198 which specifies that a mill that sells feed or provides feed to a contract feeder is subject to licensing and inspection. The mill in question is owned by Wright County Egg, but that mill also provided feed to Hillandale Farms. Whether Wright County Egg sold the feed to Hillandale Farms, or Hillandale Farms served as a contract feeder for Wright County Egg, by Iowa law, the mill should have been licensed and inspected.
“It is very disconcerting that the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture would ignore his statutory responsibilities to the favor of ‘habitual violator’ Jack DeCoster, who has a long history of illicit practices. This is particularly alarming because the scale of the operations in question makes the food-safety implications so severe. If Salmonella contamination of the feed supply is found to be the cause of food poisoning for 1,500 people across the nation – as preliminary reports indicate – this national crisis could have been averted if the secretary had tested the feed and issued a ‘withdrawal from distribution’ order for the contaminated feed, as the law specifies he should have.
“As a dairy farmer and on-farm dairy processor, my dairy is inspected regularly, and the dairy products I produce are tested routinely to ensure food safety. But the egg industry is 50 years behind the times in its regulatory framework to secure food safety. For the Secretary of Agriculture to argue that he should err on the side of not enforcing the minimal regulations in place for egg production is unconscionable.
“Rather than making excuses for his past failure – which allowed the egg industry to fall into a colossal food-safety crisis – the Iowa Secretary of Agriculture should be leading the charge to create a regulatory framework that will ensure the safety of eggs produced in Iowa.”
Two former employees of Wright County Egg told the Associated Press that they mentioned problems causing unsanitary conditions to various federal inspectors, but each time the inspectors ignored them. The Des Moines Register’s Philip Brasher reported on other problems with the federal inspection system:
U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors also missed the problems at Hillandale as well as at Wright County Egg, a producer that recalled 380 million eggs and supplied Hillandale with hens and feed.
The USDA employees, whose main job is to grade eggs on their condition and catch defects, don’t check henhouses or look into farms’ salmonella-prevention programs, a job the USDA leaves to the Food and Drug Administration.
The USDA employees do inspect conditions in packing facilities for companies that request and pay for the service. The packing facilities at Hillandale in West Union and at four more farms operated by Wright County Egg had all been audited by the USDA in 2009 or this year and received stellar marks – grades of 97 to 99 percent.
It’s not the inspectors’ job to go in henhouses and see whether a farm is guarding against salmonella contamination, said Sam Jones-Ellard, a spokesman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.
As a result, some retailers, including Costco, are considering “setting or tightening their own safety standards for buying eggs,” Brasher reported.
DeCoster’s operation has supplied eggs to many companies under different brand names. Food Democracy Now has been collecting signatures urging grocery stores to stop buying eggs linked to DeCoster. On September 2 the non-profit organization announced that two companies have responded favorably to the request:
CLEAR LAKE, Iowa – Two major retail supermarket chains, Trader Joe’s and Fareway Stores Inc., have agreed to pull DeCoster-affiliated brands of eggs from the shelves of their combined 442 stores nationwide. The news comes as a result from pressure from Food Democracy Now!, a grassroots community of over 150,000 Americans, after it was announced that the recent salmonella outbreak, which affected thousands, stemmed from two Iowa facilities owned by Austin “Jack” DeCoster.
Earlier this week, Food Democracy Now! began calling on its members to send messages to supermarkets nationwide to stop selling egg brands that come from DeCoster’s facilities after it became known that Wright County and Hillandale Farms – both owned by Jack DeCoster – were the source of the latest salmonella outbreak in eggs that sickened thousands of Americans and caused a nationwide recall of over 550 million eggs. To date, the petition has over 31,000 signatures and has been Food Democracy Now!’s source of support in calling on supermarket chains affiliated with DeCoster and asking them to make their customers’ safety a top priority.
“While Americans wait for the federal government to take action against DeCoster and his business, it is imperative that we take action to make sure that the American consumer continues to purchase food items without the fear of falling ill from manufacturer negligence,” said Dave Murphy, founder and Executive Director of Food Democracy Now!. “Trader Joe’s and Fareway Stores, Inc. have done the right thing and helped prevent any further endangerment to their customers – we hope that other grocery stores will do the right thing and follow in their footsteps.”
This week, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration released a damning report, detailing filthy conditions at Wright County Egg, Hillandale Farms and Quality Egg LLC, the DeCoster-owned feed mill that supplied both facilities with the salmonella tainted feed. The FDA reported the existence of live rodents in laying houses, overflowing piles of manure up to eight feet high, and an exorbitant amount of flies and maggots throughout the facilities.
Today the Des Moines Register’s Tony Leys covered DeCoster family members’ generous political giving over the years, a topic first reported by Lynda Waddington at Iowa Independent last week. DeCoster family donations to the Democratic Governors Association totaled $375,000 in the past four years, and the DGA has been the largest financial supporter of Culver’s re-election campaign. Adam Mason of Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement called on the DGA to return the donations. DGA spokeswoman Emily Bittner said the organization “complies fully with campaign finance law. We do not earmark or funnel contributions.”
Culver campaign manager Donn Stanley said Thursday that the governor had been unaware of the DeCosters’ contributions to the national association. Stanley said the governor has no control over who donates to the association and would not ask the group to return the DeCosters’ donations. […]
Culver has taken no high-profile stance on the latest DeCoster scandal since it became a national story last month. When pressed by reporters, he first indicated last week that it was a federal matter. He later said he would have his staff look to see if any changes could be made to state regulations to help prevent such problems. He said he would like to see significant increases in fines and penalties for violators.
Stanley said Culver knows Peter DeCoster, who is Jack’s son and helps run the family business. Stanley said that’s not surprising, because the governor knows many Iowa business people. He said he was unsure if the governor had ever met privately with any of the DeCosters, but he said Culver had never solicited financial contributions from the family.
Stanley said Culver’s Republican opponent, former Gov. Terry Branstad, also has received financial support from big agricultural interests. Stanley also noted that Doug Gross, one of Branstad’s top advisers, used to represent the DeCosters as a lawyer.
Branstad’s campaign declined to comment for this article.
Stanley said Culver has worked hard for the Democratic Governors Association. “It’s not surprising that the Democratic Governors Association would support an incumbent Democratic governor, especially one who has been so supportive of the DGA,” he said.
Culver has done a lot of fundraisers for the DGA around the country, and they clearly would have gotten involved in his re-election campaign with or without donations from the DeCoster family. Furthermore, big steps to regulate factory farms were probably off the table the day Culver picked Patty Judge as his running mate in 2006. Still, it doesn’t look good for the DGA to raise so much money from one family with a major business interest in Iowa. Until we adopt a clean elections system, this kind of legalized corruption (or at least the appearance of it) will continue to influence our politics.
I’m not surprised the Branstad administration declined to comment for today’s story in the Register. The last thing they need is for a reporter to comb through his campaign donations looking for connections to questionable corporate interests. Branstad’s current campaign has raised more than $200,000 from people closely linked to the American Future Fund, for example.