Satellite image of chicken CAFOsThe Wright County Egg headquarters in Galt, Iowa, are surrounded by chicken complexes, each with over a dozen 200-meter-long sheds and a manure lagoon. (Image from Google Earth)

As a jaded observer of  the livestock industry, I just sighed when I learned the scale of the current salmonella-tainted egg recall: 380 million eggs, distributed under 10 different brands in 17 different states, all from a single producer — Iowa-based Wright County Farms. Another day, another industrial-ag gaffe imperiling the health of millions.

USA Today reports that as many as 1,300 people have already been sickened by the tainted eggs. According to a recent GAO report, companies recover only about 36 percent of targeted products in a typical recall. That means that literally millions of people stand just an undercooked egg or an unwashed hand away from a nasty case of salmonella.

But then William Neuman’s New York Times piece hipped me to the name of the owner of Wright County Farms: one Austin “Jack” DeCoster. That’s when my sigh became a gasp.

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Jack DeCoster(Lewiston, Maine Sun-Journal)Jack DeCoster is one of the most reviled names in industrial agriculture. I first heard of him back in 2007, when I visited Hardin County, Iowa, for a story on the ravages of industrial hog production. One day, as a group of disgruntled farmers gave me a tour of their CAFO-scarred county, they muttered darkly about DeCoster. They said he had been run out of Maine for the egregious practices of his vast egg factories, and that he had set up shop in Iowa with massive, highly polluting hog factories. He was cited as the owner of several operations as we passed foul-smelling concentrations of hog buildings, sometimes as many as eight plunked down together in a cluster, each containing thousands of hogs and each draining mass quantities of waste into a single fetid “lagoon.”

Looks like he still is. A Google Earth search by Grist of Wright County Egg Productions’ address turned up the satellite image above, of four complexes with a dozen massive, 200-meter-long sheds and a manure lagoons.

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DeCoster has been making headlines for more than a decade. In 1996, the New York Times described him like this:

For more than three decades, Jack DeCoster has been an emblem of hard work and ambition in this little farming town, a self-made multimillionaire who started out with 125 hens and created an agricultural empire: Five million hens producing 23 million brown and white eggs a week.       

But that’s not what landed him in the paper of record. Get this:

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration last month fined Mr. DeCoster $3.6 million for violations in the workplace and at workers’ housing. Federal investigators said they found workers, many of whom are immigrants from Latin America, handling manure and dead chickens with their bare hands, and living amid rats and cockroaches in the company’s trailer park. 

Robert B. Reich, the then-Labor Secretary, denounced DeCoster Egg Farms as “an agricultural sweatshop,” where “the workers are treated like animals,” the Times reported.

DeCoster’s reputation hasn’t improved since. By the mid-’90s, Decoster had already set up shop in Iowa. He opened Wright County Eggs in 1996, and also jumped into the state’s then fast-growing hog-production market. His vast hog factories in Iowa quickly ran afoul of authorities. In 1999, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled against DeCoster Farms in its appeal of a $59,000 fine for “variety of water pollution and animal waste control violations at six separate hog facilities in Wright, Hamilton, and Hardin counties in north central Iowa.” The complaint had originated in 1996, and DeCoster had dragged out the process with a series of appeals.

By 2000, he was back in trouble again. The Iowa Attorney General declared him the state’s very first “habitual offender” of water-quality laws, slapping him with a $150,000 fine.

In 2002, DeCoster’s Wright County egg operation made news in a particularly unconscionable way. Reported the Times:

Five illegal Mexican immigrants who say they were raped while working at an Iowa egg producer have agreed to pursue criminal charges, their lawyer said. The women are working with the Wright County prosecutor. The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission filed a lawsuit in August against the women’s employer, DeCoster Farms, saying three former supervisors attacked them and threatened to have them fired or killed if they did not submit.

The company later settled the suit for a cool $1.5 million. The payment of fines, it seems, is a mere cost of doing business for DeCoster — and an ongoing one. In January, reports the Sun-Journal, his Maine Contract Farming operations were fined $36,000 for 10 counts of animal abuse. 

The outrage here is not that Wright County Eggs has released nearly half a billion tainted eggs into the market, exposing untold numbers of people to sickness. DeCoster’s record of abuse — of people and the environment — has taught anyone who’s paying attention to expect such things from his operations.

The outrage is that regulatory authorities at both the state and national levels have allowed him to continue hiring workers and producing food as violations piled up.