An Iowa-based multi-million-dollar egg producing company and the father and son who owned it pleaded guilty Tuesday to violating federal food safety laws after a 2010 Salmonella outbreak traced to their egg products sickened about 2,000 people nationwide and triggered a recall of more than half a billion eggs.
Austin “Jack” DeCoster, 79, and Peter DeCoster, 50, face up to one year in jail, fines of $100,000 each, and restitution for victims after pleading guilty to misdemeanor charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce.
Their company, Quality Egg LLC, which the elder DeCoster started from modest beginnings in Maine, also faces the same misdemeanor charge in addition to felonies that include bribing a federal regulator and selling misbranded food with the intent to defraud or mislead. The company has agreed to pay a $6.8-million in fine — one of the largest-ever fines for U.S. food safety violations – under a plea deal subject to the approval of a federal judge in Iowa.
Court documents state that Quality Egg LLC sold Salmonella-tainted eggs for about eight months starting in January 2010. Although federal prosecutors say they have no evidence the DeCosters knew that their company was selling contaminated eggs, they can be held legally accountable as the corporate officers.
The company admits that a former manager, Tony Wasmund, and another employee bribed a USDA inspector at least twice in an effort to get the official to release pallets of eggs that had been retained because they were cracked, dirty, or leaking and failed to meet federal standards.
Under Mr. Wasmund, Quality Egg also for years put false processing and expiration dates on labels, which helped the company dodge laws in Arizona, California, and other places mandating that eggs be sold within 30 days of production.
Mr. Wasmund pleaded guilty to bribery conspiracy and is scheduled for sentencing in September.
Although the DeCosters may not have known about the fraudulent practices that contributed to the outbreak, it is not the first time their company has run afoul of federal regulators. According to the Associated Press, “DeCoster’s egg empire expanded even as he racked up labor, food safety and immigration violations. Bennett, the judge, sentenced DeCoster to five years of probation in 2003 for knowingly hiring people who were in the U.S. illegally.”