WASHINGTON (AP) -- Members of a Congress showed photos of dead chickens, bugs and holes in hen houses as they prepared to question the heads of two egg farms linked to as many as 1,600 cases of salmonella poisoning in the United States during the past few months.
During Wednesday's hearing by a House of Representatives subcommittee, Democratic Rep. Bart Stupak said the outbreak paints "a very disturbing picture of egg production in America."
The owner of Wright County Egg, Austin "Jack" DeCoster, said in prepared testimony that he was "horrified" to learn that his eggs may have sickened so many people. But DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster, who also testified, suggested the outbreak might not have been the fault of the company.
Sarah Lewis, 30, testified that she still has diarrhea, fevers and stress after a trip to the intensive care unit and several weeks of sickness after eating a custard tart at her sister's graduation banquet. Her sister also got salmonella poisoning from the eggs.
"Knowing how sick we were scares the heck out of us now," she said.
Another victim, Carol Loboto, 77, teared up as she described her ordeal. She said she has lost stamina and has constant indigestion.
The panel had asked the DeCosters to come prepared to explain what actions were taken to deal with salmonella contamination found at their farms.
In testimony released by the company, Wright County Egg, the men said they believed an ingredient sold to them by an outside supplier may be to blame for the outbreak.
So far, a Food and Drug Administration investigation appears to be focused on Wright and another company linked to the illnesses, Hillandale Farms. Both are from the Midwestern state of Iowa. The two companies recalled more than a half billion eggs related to the outbreak in August.
Agency investigators found several samples of salmonella at the two farms. An investigation by the House subcommittee found that Wright County Egg had received hundreds of positive results for salmonella in the last two years, including 73 samples that were potentially positive for Salmonella Enteritidis, the strain responsible for the recent outbreak.
"We were horrified to learn that our eggs may have made people sick," Jack DeCoster said in the testimony. "We apologize to everyone who may have been sickened by eating our eggs. I pray several times each day for all of them and for their improved health."
The president of Hillandale Farms, Orland Bethel, also was to testify at the hearing. Wright County Egg operates one of Hillandale's barns and supplies feed to the company.
Jack DeCoster is no stranger to tangling with the government. He has paid millions of dollars in state and federal fines over at least two decades for health, safety, immigration and environmental violations at his farms.
In the testimony, DeCoster says his companies, which span several states, grew too fast.
"We were big before we started adopting sophisticated procedures to be sure we met all of the government requirements," he said. "While we were big, but still acting like we were small, we got into trouble with government requirements several times."
Peter DeCoster, CEO of Wright, said the company has made "sweeping biosecurity and food safety changes" following the recall and will remove all of their flocks that have not been vaccinated against the strain of salmonella linked to the illnesses. Such vaccinations are not required by the government. On-site inspections and testing also will increase, he said.
He also said the Food and Drug Administration inspected the company's feed mill in May and found no deficiencies. That is contrary to previous statements from the agency, which has said FDA has no inspection history with the companies.
The specific cause of the outbreak remains unknown, and the FDA still is investigating.
No deaths have been reported due to the outbreak. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said this is the largest outbreak of this strain of salmonella since the start of the agency's surveillance of outbreaks in the late 1970s. For every case reported, there may be 30 that are unreported.