DeCosters’ jail sentences justified

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If you believe a massive 2010 Salmonella outbreak linked to Iowa eggs was the result of a few rogue workers, you haven’t been paying attention.

Executives behind the outbreak — Austin “Jack” DeCoster, owner of Quality Egg, and his son, Peter, chief operating officer — received more bad news this week. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled executives can be sentenced to prison when their companies violate federal food-safety laws.

It couldn’t have happened to two more deserving executives.

The DeCosters pleaded guilty last year to violating the Food Drug and Cosmetic Act. Both Jack and Peter were sentenced to serve three months in prison and ordered to pay a $100,000 fine.

The outbreak is believed to have sickened tens of thousands, and led to the recall of 550 million Iowa and Ohio eggs from operations owned by or affiliated with the DeCosters.

The case and appeal have been watched by business groups. A few submitted briefs to the court opposing the prison sentences out of fear the penalties would negatively impact regulated industries.

And, as the appeal suggests, the sentence is beyond what’s typical. DeCosters’ lawyers argued it was a due process violation and cruel and unusual.

“For more than a century, crimes like these have been punished by fines, occasionally probation, and above all the serious stigma and collateral consequences of criminal conviction,” the lawyers noted.

Austin "Jack" DeCoster (L), owner of Wright County Egg, and his son Peter DeCoster testify before the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on the "Outbreak of Salmonella in Eggs" on Capitol Hill in Washington September 22, 2010.
Austin “Jack” DeCoster (L), owner of Wright County Egg, and his son Peter DeCoster testify before the House Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee hearing on the “Outbreak of Salmonella in Eggs” on Capitol Hill in Washington September 22, 2010. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

I’d argue the DeCosters have a history of regulatory overstep that spans more than three decades. The record proves these are not typical executives, who would change their practices because of mere fines.

One of the first government penalties levied against Jack DeCoster was in 1976. He was required to pay $16,500 by government regulators who discovered the Quality Egg drivers he supervised had been doctoring log books.

Year after year, problems continued to surface.

State agencies, the federal government, nearby property owners and even Mexican officials filed suits or levied fines against DeCoster agricultural enterprises for civil rights, labor, safety and environmental violations. States have, at times, banned DeCoster eggs because of disease outbreaks that resulted in hospitalizations and death. Supermarket chains have boycotted DeCoster eggs following fines levied due to squalid conditions.

Perhaps the worst is that the pattern continues.

In November 2011, the DeCosters announced they were leaving the egg industry, but the departure didn’t last — if it ever happened at all. Last summer the editorial board of the Portland (Maine) Press Herald cautioned state officials against a deal between the DeCosters and Hillandale Farms. Owned by Orland Bethel, Hillandale was the Ohio-based egg producer affiliated with DeCoster and also implicated in the 2010 outbreak.

A whistleblower video emerged just last month reportedly showing filthy conditions within the joint Hillandale-DeCoster facilities.

Such news does make me question the prison sentence handed down in Sioux City. It makes me wonder if three months is enough.

This column by Lynda Waddington originally published in The Gazette on July 9, 2016. Photo credit: Yuri Gripas/Reuters