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The Man Behind the Egg Scandal

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The Iowa attorney general called him a "habitual violator" of state laws.

Labor Secretary Robert Reich called his farms "atrocious."

A federal investigator said it was "inconceivable" he didn't know his farms' conditions.

Now, after decades of harming animals, workers and the environment, the Teflon Chicken Don, Austin "Jack" DeCoster, appears to be harming people.

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So many eggs from egg farms he owns and egg laying chickens and feed from his supply operations have been implicated in the salmonella outbreak, the Commissioner of the FDA herself, Dr. Margaret Hamburg, was forced to make a statement.

Conditions on DeCoster owned egg farms have been in the news for years.

Maine Contract Farming, formerly the DeCoster Egg Farm, has a three decade-long complaint history from workers, neighbors, environmental officials, labor officials and humane workers.

In 1977 neighbors whose homes were infested with insects filed a $5 million lawsuit, claiming nose plugs and flyswatters should be the "new neighbor" kit.

In 1980, the DeCoster operation was charged with employing five 11-year-olds and a 9-year-old by the Labor department.

In 1988, 100,000 chickens burned to death in a fire and were left to decompose.

In 1992, DeCoster was charged by the state, with indenturing migrant workers, denying them contact with teachers, social workers, doctors, lawyers and labor organizers.

In 1996, federal investigators found DeCoster workers living in rat and cockroach infested housing and the egg operation was fined $3.6 million.

("The conditions in this migrant farm site are as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen,'' said Labor Secretary Robert Reich; "I thought I was going to faint and I was only there a few minutes,'' said Cesar Britos, an attorney representing DeCoster workers, after entering a barn.")

In 2001 dead hens intermingled with live ones during truck transport sparked a complaint to the Department of Agriculture.

Workers' drinking water has been found contaminated with feces by OSHA and after a conciliatory "free" chicken banquet offered to workers, they were docked for their time eating it, reported the Portland Press Herald.

But Jack DeCoster, using Boston spinmeister George Regan for public relations, ha always avoided criminal convictions and farm closures and even expanded his empire from egg farms in Maine to pig farms in Iowa in the 1990s.

Last year, state officials raided DeCoster's Maine Contract Farming in Turner after being given undercover video from Chicago-based Mercy For Animals (MFA) showing hens suffocating in garbage cans, hens kicked into manure pits to drown and hens hanging by their feet half dead over egg conveyer belts.

For eight hours agriculture and state officials, including police troopers with a search warrant, documented conditions termed "deplorable, horrifying and upsetting" by state veterinarian Don Hoenig and removed dead and living hens for evidence.

Four Department of Agriculture workers were incapacitated from entering the ammonia filled barns and had to be treated by doctors for burned lungs. OSHA launched an investigation. If humans became sick from a short time in the barns, imagine working - or living in a battery cage - there.

But eggs farms are only half the problem. Since male chicks are of no use to the egg industry, newly born males are ground up alive at hatcheries owned by DeCoster and others. Video shot by Mercy For Animals last year at Hy-Line Hatchery in Spencer, Iowa clearly shows healthy male chicks, peeping and bouncing as they greet the world, fed into the blades of the macerator like so much litter. Hello! Goodbye! http://www.truth-out.org/090309C

"I saw a bloody slush coming out of the bottom of the grinder," writes an MFA investigator, who worked in the Hy-Line "transfer room" and on the cleaning crew. "The plant manager told me that the ground-up male chicks were used in dog food and fertilizer."

Nor does the US trade group United Egg Producers deny the daily grinding up alive of baby males. "There is, unfortunately, no way to breed eggs that only produce female hens," spokesman Mitch Head told The Associated Press last year. "If someone has a need for 200 million male chicks, we're happy to provide them to anyone who wants them. But we can find no market, no need."

As the salmonella egg scandal spreads, authorities say they are having a hard time tracing the egg industry's "distribution chain" of which DeCoster is such a major part. That's because when it only harmed animals, workers and the environment they let it run unregulated.

Martha Rosenberg is a columnist and cartoonist, who writes about public health

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