By Tom Philpott
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.
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.
USA Today reports that as many as 1,300 people have already been sickened by the tainted eggs. According to a recent GAO report [PDF], 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.
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.”
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