IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) -- An Iowa company and two executives were charged Wednesday with selling the eggs responsible for a 2010 salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands of people and led to an unprecedented recall of 550 million eggs.
Disgraced egg industry titan Austin "Jack" DeCoster and his son Peter DeCoster were charged with introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in jail. A charging document filed in federal court alleges the pair and their company sold shell eggs tainted with the strain of salmonella during the monthslong outbreak.
Quality Egg LLC, which includes the Decosters' former network of chicken and egg-laying farms in rural northern Iowa, was charged with introducing misbranded food into interstate commerce for selling products from 2006 to 2010 with labels that "made the eggs appear to be not as old as they actually were." The company is also charged with bribing a public official for an alleged 2010 payment to influence a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector to approve shell eggs that had been held back for failing to meet federal standards. Both are felonies.
The DeCosters were expected to plead guilty at June 3 hearings. Attorneys representing the DeCosters didn't return messages.
Seattle attorney Bill Marler, who represented some of those poisoned during the outbreak, said the case signals a new stance from prosecutors who have been reluctant to charge food producers with selling tainted products because of the difficulty of proving intent. The charges against the DeCosters do not allege they knew their eggs were tainted. That was also the case with Colorado cantaloupe farmers who were sentenced to home detention in January for selling products tied to a listeria outbreak that killed 33, Marler said.
"They are sending a pretty strong message to food manufacturers that if they ship — knowingly or not — contaminated food across state boundaries, they can be held criminally liable," Marler said. "That's a big deal."
The Food and Drug Administration implicated Quality Egg and another Iowa company which it supplied feed and hens, Hillandale Farms, in the 2010 outbreak. Health officials had noted a sharp spike in reports of salmonella, which causes fever, cramps and diarrhea and can require hospitalization. Scientists traced those illnesses back to shell eggs from those farms that were served in restaurants and sold in grocery stores under several brand names.
FDA investigators found salmonella all over the farms, along with filthy conditions including dead chickens, insects, rodents and towers of manure. The two companies issued recalls that eventually covered 550 million eggs.
The Centers for Disease Control says more than 1,900 reported illnesses were linked to the outbreak, the largest of this specific strain of salmonella since the start of the agency's surveillance of outbreaks in the late 1970s. The CDC estimates that it also caused as many as 60,000 unreported illnesses. No deaths were reported.
Federal agents raided the Decosters' office in Galt, Iowa in August 2010, starting a grand jury investigation.
Jack DeCoster, 79, had racked up numerous food safety, labor and environmental violations over the prior four decades as he built one of the nation's largest egg production companies. In congressional testimony, DeCoster said he was horrified to learn that his products sickened consumers and apologized. Peter DeCoster, 50, who managed the farms' daily operations, promised sweeping food safety changes.
Retailers, including Wal-Mart, abandoned their products. The DeCosters announced in 2011 that they were getting out of the industry, selling their operations in Maine, Ohio and Iowa.
A former manager at the egg farms, Tony Wasmund, was the first and only other person charged before Wednesday. He pleaded guilty in 2012 to conspiring to pay a $300 bribe to a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector assigned to Wright County Egg in April 2010.
Wasmund's attorney, Rick Kerger, confirmed Monday that Wasmund has been cooperating with prosecutors under a plea agreement that could allow him to receive a reduced sentence at his September hearing.