How Did One Man Contaminate Half a Billion Eggs, and Why Wasn't He Stopped?

A single man—poultry tycoon Austin J. DeCoster—was responsible for this year's salmonella outbreak that sickened almost 2,000 people across 22 states, and forced a recall of half a billion eggs. How did it get to this point?

DeCoster's egg operations were, perhaps, anomalous in terms of their pure grossness—reports from one of his plants cite overflowing feces, rats, flies, and "liquid manure leaking from a manure pit." Who wants an omelette! At a Congressional hearing yesterday, DeCoster claimed the source of the outbreak was contaminated food—ignoring entirely the vile state of his hatcheries.

Perhaps the most disgusting part about DeCoster's story is that this most recent outbreak was a sequel—way back in 1987, eggs from his plant sent 500 people to the hospital with horrible cases of salmonella. "It was like a war zone," recounts Dr. Philippe Tassy to the New York Times.

So what happened in the 23 years between that outbreak and ours? Very little, it would seem. A patchwork of state regulators strapped sanctions of varying severity—New York banned the sale of his eggs entirely, while DeCoster moved his operations to Iowa, which requires no salmonella testing at all. Maine, however, kept a tight eye on DeCoster's complex—and often found bacterial specimens when field agents were sent to conduct tests.

Things don't seem significantly better today. At the aforementioned hearing, lawmakers pointed to testing results that found 426 positive bacterial samples present at DeCoster's farm, including 73 "potentially positive" for the exact strain behind this year's rampaging outbreak. So why were 426 positive samples of anything not enough to keep these eggs out of your breakfast? Federal law, until this past July, simply didn't make it so. And by July, it was a little late. Before this federal mandate, DeCoster was apparently free to do as much or as little as he wished with the data at hand. "Experts advised that egg testing is a poor indicator, said DeCoster. "Our perception was that egg test results always would be negative."

So a farming magnate with no regard for the health of anything—chickens, humans, whatever—was able to take the word of his "experts" over the proof of scientists. And this is inexcusable. We have the technology to keep a DeCoster-style outbreak from occurring again—testing facilities for deadly bacteria uses the same basic principles as any grade school petri dish experiment. Just swab and go. If contamination is found, testing the eggs themselves is feasible and effective as well. The breakdown lies not in the science, but in the legislative langor that puts agricultural interests over our safety. Although this most recent outbreak has been contained, agricultural biosecurity is in clear need of some legislative time on the griddle.