Ethics: August 2010 Archives
Released yesterday, the FDA's inspection report of facilities at Wright Company and Quality Egg, ground zero for the recent egg-borne salmonella outbreak, is either an outing of a filthy outlier in the business of mass agriculture or a revelation of the filthy business of mass agriculture. How much chicken shit is acceptable in and around hen houses is virtually unknowable for the 99% of Americans who don't farm. But 4-to-8-feet piles seem excessive.
According to the FDA, the laying facilities in north-central Iowa, managed by Austin "Jack" DeCoster's son, Peter, were plagued with the following:
- Massive and escalating amounts of chicken excrement.
Inspectors reported that "outside access to the manure pits...had been pushed out by the weight of the manure, leaving open access to wildlife or domesticated animals." Manure, aka "dark liquid," was also observed to be seeping through the concrete foundation of the outside of the laying houses. Uncaged birds were seen using the piled-up manure to access laying areas.
- Standing water near manure pits.
- Live rodents, namely mice, who evidently had free access into and out of the laying houses.
- And lots and lots of flies and maggots. "The live flies were on and around egg belts, feed, shell eggs and walkways in different sections of each egg laying area," the inspectors wrote. "In addition, live and dead maggots too numerous to count were observed on the manure pit floor..."
Most important, perhaps, was the fact that the FDA found evidence of Salmonella enteritidis in multiple locations, including in manure and chicken feed.
The FDA's inspection took place from August 12 to August 30, longer than 2 weeks. Given the duration of the inspection (and the possibility that facility managers knew that the FDA was coming), it seems that officers at Wright County and Quality Egg actually had the opportunity to clean up their facilities. If so, the conditions of these businesses may have been, in reality, considerably worse.
Former Duke med classmate Chuck Murry, co-director of U Washington's Institute for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine, was featured last night in an NBC Nightly News piece on embryonic cell research (video here). Veteran science reporter Robert Bazell said that what Murry has done, converting embryonic cells to beating cardiac tissue, is "remarkable."
But Murry's work and others' like it are now threatened by Monday's decision from a federal judge, Royce C. Lamberth, which blocks President Obama's 2009 order to expand funding for embryonic cell research. Lamberth ruled that the executive order conflicts with a legislated ban on using federal funds to destroy embryos (first contained in the Dickey-Wicker Amendment to the Balanced Budget Downpayment Act of 1996).
According to NIH director Francis Collins, by way of USA Today, the effects of Lamberth's ruling are chilling. A total of 167 grants, representing $149 million, will be frozen in the very near future. However, another 131 awarded grants, which are already "out the door," will not be affected until they're up for renewal next year.
Yesterday the US Department of Justice announced that it will appeal Lamberth's ruling. A profile of the judge, a Reagan appointee, is provided by the Washington Post.
The NYT and the WSJ are also, predictably, all over the story. According to the NYT, a Clinton* administration lawyer tried to circumvent the Dickey-Wicker Amendment in 1999, by arguing that federal money could support research on stem cell colonies, or lines, that had already been produced with private funding. (The idea being: use private funds to destroy the embryonic cell as it differentiates; then use federal funding to support research on the created stem-cell line.) The Bush administration adopted the lawyer's argument "with severe restrictions," and Obama attempted to lift the Bush restrictions last year.
* BTW, Clinton signed the Balanced Budget Downpayment Act of 1996 with the Dickey-Wicker Amendment.
P.S. Go Chuck.
Gird yer loins, Austin "Jack" DeCoster. You're about to receive uncompromising media and Congressional attention. And the metaphoric (and partially ironic) tarring and feathering may long be overdue, if archived news stories are any indication.
The growing recall of Salmonella-tainted eggs is focusing widespread attention on DeCoster (photos here and here), who is the owner of Wright County Egg in Galt, Iowa, and Quality Egg, a supplier of chicks and feed to Hillendale Farms in New Hampton, Iowa. On August 13, Wright County recalled 380 million eggs that it had shipped since May 19. Hillandale recalled 170 million eggs on Friday, according to USA Today.
The FDA says that the Wright County eggs had been distributed to "food wholesalers, distribution centers and food service companies in California, Illinois, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa." These companies distribute eggs nationwide. The recalled eggs were packaged under the brand names of Lucerne, Albertson, Mountain Dairy, Ralph’s, Boomsma’s, Sunshine, Hillandale, Trafficanda, Farm Fresh, Shoreland, Lund, Dutch Farms and Kemps. [Writer's note: Because Lucerne consistently provides the least expensive dairy products in Chicago-area Dominick's stores, I've always been skeptical of their origin. BTW, Lucerne's cheese is absolutely tasteless.]
DeCoster, who also has a history in hog farming, is reportedly no stranger to alleged health, safety, or labor violations, which date back to at least the mid-1990s.
Reports USA Today,
In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms of Turner, Maine, agreed to pay $2 million to settle health and safety citations. Employment conditions at DeCoster's farm were publicly denounced by Labor secretaries Robert Reich (he called them "dangerous and oppressive") and Alexis Herman (who said they were "simply atrocious"). See the NYT's "In Maine, Egg Empire Is Under Fire."
In 2000, Iowa (as in the state of) called DeCoster a "habitual violator" of environmental regulations. One infraction: allowing hog manure to run off into waterways. DeCoster was prohibited from building new farms. See a 2000 statement from the Iowa Attorney General.
In 2002, DeCoster paid more than $1.5 million in a settlement with the EEOC regarding sexual harassment claims (including rape) from Mexican women who worked at Wright County.
Other violations, including those of animal mistreatment, are reported by the Washington Post and detailed by Mercy for Animals here and here. DeCoster's heavy use of battery cages to house chickens has been linked to the spread of Salmonella on egg farms.
More than 1000 Americans have been sickened by Salmonella-tainted eggs in the current recall, according to the latest news reports, and the obligatory litigation is in the works. This may be one case in which it is reasonable to root for personal-injury attorneys.