Jack DeCoster built a national egg-empire out of 200 hens he inherited from his father as a child. Known as the “Chicken King,” he’s been called everything from hardworking entrepreneur to cutthroat fraudster. A controversial figure, DeCoster has established his family brand – Quality Egg LLC – as one of the most successful in the industry, with production networks across the United States.
But in 2010, when almost 2,000 Quality Egg consumers were sickened by salmonella-tainted eggs – 500 million of which were recalled – federal officials launched a 3-year investigation into the company’s farming practices. They uncovered wide-ranging compliance breaches, shocking enough to horrify any food safety course grad, not to mention everyday dairy-aisle shopper. Soon after, both Jack DeCoster and his son, Peter became the subjects of a congressional hearing. And on May 21st the verdict was in: felony charges for both offenders and the very real possibility of jail time.
Misbranding and bribery
No matter how rigorous food safety training may be, or how stringent its protocols, contaminants continue to find their way into our food supply. And occasionally, industry corruption is at the root of food-borne outbreaks – reminding us that public health is only as strong as the ethics of mega providers like Quality Egg.
Federal investigators discovered that, as far back as 2006 DeCoster’s company had been misbranding and mislabelling their eggs. Altering best-before and packaged-by dates, they’d systematically obscured their age, making them seem fresher than they actually were. And to make matters worse, they bribed USDA inspectors to keep it all quiet.
In retrospect, the salmonella outbreak seemed inevitable – along with the felony charges for bribery and fraud.
DeCoster’s critics – which include government regulators, federal prosecutors, and fellow egg farmers – are relieved at the indictment, and that the Chicken King’s reign has come to an end. They say the company had it coming. Quality Eggs had wriggled out of numerous past transgressions including the hiring of illegal workers, inhumane treatment of animals, and workplace discrimination. Republican Iowa governor, Terry Brandstad commented, “the DeCosters have been consistent and habitual violators who have given Iowa egg producers a bad name…[they] should have been out of business long ago.”
Competitors purchase Quality Egg operations
Centrum Valley Farms will take over DeCoster’s business in Iowa, while Land O’Lakes has struck a deal to run the Quality Egg operations in Ohio. While Jack and Peter DeCoster negotiate cash settlements with salmonella victims and await sentencing, the new owners of Quality Egg LLC are working hard to repair the now tarnished image of American egg farming, promising consumers that food safety certification is top on their list of priorities.
How much can we trust products that come from monopolizing providers, particularly those with enough cash to pay off both inspectors and repeated infraction fines?