Austin DeCoster testifying before the House oversight and investigations subcommittee.

Egg king Austin “Jack” DeCoster is back in the news — this time after a positive salmonella test triggered a recall of eggs from an Ohio producer he partly owns.

His name has been reviled since an outbreak of salmonella that sickened at least 1,600 people was traced to his Iowa farms, leading to the recall of about 550 million eggs.

This brings back memories.

This commentary also published by:
The Oregonian

As a young reporter in the 1970s, DeCoster Egg Farms of Turner, Maine, was the focus of one of my first investigative stories. For all I knew salmonella might have been a fish. My attention was drawn instead to the company’s spiteful and kleptocratic management style, which included clawing back from workers a share of their poverty wages.

Jack DeCoster, I learned, was a truly self-made man. His father died in 1949 when Jack was in his teens, and he inherited about 100 hens. By 1977, when my stories appeared in the now-defunct Maine Times, he had 2.8 million laying hens, was the undisputed egg king of New England and one of the top suppliers in the U.S.

Religion was his one passion to rival eggs. He was a dedicated fundamentalist Christian who taught Sunday school and attended evening prayer meetings with his managers. He hired a band of evangelical Christian students as summer employees. When not busy in the egg barns, they ministered to workers under the acronym EGG(Experiencing God’s Glory).

When it came to the company’s treatment of workers, however, “What would Jesus do?” was not the central theme.

The starting pay of $1.90 to $2.00 an hour was low even by poultry industry standards. Turnover was enormous. Employees had their paychecks dunned for breaking eggs and for other expenses and penalties, without prior consent or a protest mechanism.

At one point, DeCoster’s generously arranged with a private foundation to provide jobs and housing to 19 Vietnamese refugees. The men were stuffed into three of the company-owned trailers that housed many DeCoster workers. In one instance, a Vietnamese worker who’d put in a 66.5 hour week had his paycheck slashed from $169.58 to $26.27 by miscellaneous deductions.

DeCoster drivers who hauled eggs throughout New England and the Middle Atlantic states were given plenty of time to polish their driving skills.

After a driver complained about being forced to falsify his driving logs, a federal investigation found that the company routinely violated limits on the hours truckers can drive without rest. Prosecutors cited records showing that DeCoster trucks had been involved in eight major crashes resulting in two deaths and three serious injuries in less than two years.

In 1975, the company pleaded guilty to federal charges of failing to keep accurate logs, and paid a $2,500 fine.

The company’s response was to work harder to avoid getting caught. It got the Department of Transportation to issue an agricultural exemption that allowed it to avoid reporting major accidents. It also stopped using the type of payroll cards that, by comparing against the falsified logs, led to it being caught.

Even so, federal authorities soon uncovered scores of new hours-of-service violations leading to new criminal charges in 1976. This time, the company was fined $14,000.

When it came to run-ins with authorities and Dickensian scandals, however, DeCoster was just getting started.

Branching out from Maine, he established major operations in Maryland and Iowa. In 1987, nine people died and hundreds more were sickened by salmonella-tainted eggs linked to DeCoster’s Maryland business. For a time, health authorities in Maryland and New York banned sales of DeCoster eggs.

Back in Maine, DeCoster Egg Farms paid $2 million in 1997 to settle federal charges involving working and living conditions that Labor Secretary Robert Reich called “ as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen.”

In 2002, the company paid $3.2 million to settle a lawsuit accusing it of discriminating against Mexican workers in working and living conditions.

Meanwhile, in Iowa, where DeCoster was producing eggs and hogs, he earned the distinction of becoming the first person deemed an “habitual violator” of the state’s environmental laws.

His Iowa business, DeCoster Farms, settled a lawsuit by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission charging supervisors with rape and other sexual violence against female employees, especially those of Mexican origin. Without admitting liability, the company agreed in 2002 to pay nearly $1.53 million.

But DeCoster topped himself in August when more than a half-billion eggs were recalled. In place of the scattershot coverage of past misdeeds, the news media turned on him with a vengeance and made the man, and his egg empire, national news.

DeCoster, now in his 70s, seemed chastened when he testified before Congress in September.

“We apologize to everyone who may have been sickened by eating our eggs,” he told the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations. Speaking softly in his Maine twang, he added: “I have prayed several times each day for all of these people for improved health.”

Lawmakers pointed to photos of rodents and manure oozing from a building at his Iowa farm. They quizzed DeCoster on what went wrong.

“We got big quite a while before we stopped acting like we were small,” he said. “While we were big but still acting like we were small, we got into trouble with government requirements several times.”

Back in the 1970s, when I reported on DeCoster Egg Farms, they were already big. Seeing them lurch from scandal to scandal, bouncing back each time, I’ve wondered how they get away with it. No doubt regulators, prosecutors and lawmakers have wondered the same thing.