Federal officials investigating conditions at the two Iowa mega-farms whose products have been at the center of the biggest egg recall in U.S. history found filthy conditions, including chickens and rodents crawling up massive manure piles and flies and maggots "too numerous to count."
Water used to wash eggs at one of the producers tested positive for a strain of salmonella that appears to match the variety identified in eggs that have sickened at least 1,500 people, according to preliminary Food and Drug Administration reports of inspections at facilities operated by Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms of Iowa Inc.
FDA officials who briefed reporters on the findings in a telephone conference call declined to say how serious the violations were for facilities that house millions of birds. Between them, the two producers have 7.5 million hens. But FDA Deputy Commissioner for Foods Michael Taylor said that "clearly the observations here reflect significant deviations from what's expected."
Food safety experts said conditions described in the reports are some of the worst they've seen in decades.
The reports offer clues to what may have caused the salmonella enteritidis outbreak that prompted the recall of half a billion eggs.
Investigators began examining conditions at the Wright County operation Aug. 12, the day before the company issued its first recall. Inspectors completed their work at that facility Aug. 30, according to documents released by the FDA.
•Barns with dozens of holes chewed by rodents that mice, insects and wild birds used to enter and live inside the barns;
•Flies on and around the egg belts and hen feeders;
•Manure built up in 4- to 8-foot-tall piles in pits below the hen houses, in such quantities that it pushed pit doors open, allowing rodents and other wild animals access to hen houses;
•Dozens of hens, which had escaped their cages, roaming freely, tracking manure from the pit to other caged parts of the barns;
•Hen houses with significant structural damage and improper air ventilation systems.
Investigators checked out the Hillandale site Aug. 19-26. Their tests of spent water from an egg wash station came up positive for salmonella, although it was not clear whether that contaminated water had been used to clean eggs, an FDA official said.
Wright County Egg recalled a total of 380 million eggs beginning Aug. 13, and Hillandale has since pulled 170 million eggs from the market. Last week, FDA officials said that salmonella tests taken at both operations came back positive.
In a statement, a Wright County Egg spokeswoman said that the company had fully cooperated with the FDA and that "to date, the vast majority of the concerns identified in the FDA report already have been addressed through repairs or other corrective measures."
A spokeswoman for Hillandale said the company was "committed to taking the steps necessary to regain the full confidence of our customers and consumers."
FDA officials declined to discuss what, if any, penalties the egg producers might face. Possible penalties include seizure of products, court orders requiring improvements in operations or criminal prosecution. Wright County Egg owner Austin DeCoster has a decades-long record of regulatory violations in at least three states and has paid millions of dollars in fines and settlements.
The agency also announced that next month it would begin inspection of the nation's 600 largest egg farms, which produce 80% of the nation's eggs. Those inspections, industry officials say, are expected to include some of the industry's smaller operations — those with as few as 50,000 laying hens — as well as mega-farms such as those operated by the DeCoster family in Iowa.
Many of the eggs consumers eat are being produced by a shrinking number of farmers. There are 192 large commercial egg producers in the U.S. that control 95% of all the laying hens, compared with 2,500 in 1987, according to the trade group United Egg Producers. The majority of those operations are based in six states, including California.
But Iowa, which has 54 million laying hens, produces far more eggs than any other state, according to UC Riverside poultry specialist Don Bell. (The next two largest states, Ohio and Pennsylvania, have only 50 million hens combined.)
Iowa has far fewer rules regarding regular inspections of either farm or feed operations. That, along with cheaper land, feed and energy costs, explains why much of the nation's cheapest eggs are being produced in the Hawkeye State, food safety experts and industry critics say.
Nancy Donley, president of Safe Tables Our Priority, a nonprofit food safety advocacy group, said she'd never seen a report so "horrific and where something that's so clearly wrong is so clearly apparent to the naked eye."
Among the most disturbing details, Donley said, were the descriptions of the hen houses that investigators said were missing exterior siding and had broken ventilation systems and holes in walls and doors, some chewed by rodents. Such structural damage, she said, takes time and could have been prevented "if any inspectors had been out there....This is a matter of just walking around the farm and looking."
Food safety attorney William Marler, who represents people sickened by the current salmonella enteritidis outbreak, said the inspection report is "one of the worst I've ever seen. Knowing now that this was going on, it doesn't surprise me that those operations had a systematic salmonella problem."
The recall, which already has triggered a congressional investigation, with hearings slated for next month, continues to have political repercussions.
Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), who has asked the FDA and the U.S. Agriculture Department what they knew about reports of the Iowa firms' past violations, said the recall underscores the country's need for comprehensive federal food safety regulations.
"We're dealing with life and death when it comes to food safety," DeLauro said last week. "What is it going to take to understand that strong regulations are needed?"
In Iowa on Monday, state Atty. Gen. Tom Miller agreed to return a $10,000 campaign contribution from Peter DeCoster, Austin DeCoster's son, made in 2005, after he was criticized by his Republican opponent.