Congressmen clash over who's to blame & the need for new food safety regulations

By Jon H. Harsch

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

Washington, Sept. 22 - Democrats and Republicans locked horns Wednesday in a dramatic House Energy & Commerce Subcommittee hearing on “The Outbreak of Salmonella in Eggs.”

Oversight & Investigations Subcommittee Chair Bart Stupak (D-MI) and other Democrats pointed to more than 1,500 illnesses over the summer from salmonella-tainted eggs as proof that the food safety bill stalled in the Senate needs to be passed before Congress adjourns Oct. 8 to campaign for the November elections. One after another, Democrats blamed Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) for using the Senate's arcane rules to single-handedly block consideration of the bill.

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The subcommittee's Ranking Member Michael Burgess (R-TX) objected strongly, insisting that it's not Coburn but instead Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) who's using procedural rules to prevent Republicans like Coburn from having an opportunity to amend proposed legislation. Burgess pointed out that while the food safety bill which the House passed last year wasn't perfect, he voted for it both in the committee and on final House passage.

The clash between Stupak and Burgess heated up to the point where Burgess insisted on reading a statement defending Coburn - and Stupak muted Burgess's microphone. Off mike, the two continued their disagreement.

There was also drama at the witness table. Orland Bethel, President of Hillandale Farms of Iowa which produced eggs linked to the salmonella poisonings, declined to offer an opening statement and invoked his fifth amendment rights to avoid answering any questions in the hearing. In contrast, Wright County Egg owner Austin “Jack” DeCoster and his son Peter DeCoster began their testimony by offering their apologies “to everyone who may have been sickened by eating our eggs.” Jack DeCoster added that “I pray several times each day for all of them and for their improved health.”

Testifying in the House salmonella hearing Wednesday, L to R, Duane Mangskau of Hillandale Farms,
Peter DeCoster and his father Austin “Jack” DeCoster of Wright County Egg. Photo: Agri-Pulse.

Adding to the drama, Democrats used photos showing rodents, dead chicken carcasses and overflowing manure pits along with newspaper headlines and scathing Food & Drug Administration post-poisoning inspection reports to highlight the “appalling conditions” at the DeCoster eggs farms in Iowa. Democrats also reeled off lists of decades of DeCoster violations which in some cases resulted in DeCoster facilities being heavily fined or closed down.

Jack and Peter DeCoster responded to all questions, admitting fault in many cases and in others saying that a large-volume egg operation naturally will run into some problems. In one case, Peter DeCoster blamed a local co-op for being behind schedule in removing manure which the co-op spreads as fertilizer. Jack DeCoster offered this explanation: “we were big before we started adopting sophisticated procedures to be sure we met all of the government requirements. While we were big, but still acting like we were small, we got into trouble with government requirements several times. I am sorry for those failings. I accept responsibility for those mistakes in our operations.”

The DeCosters testified that they have hired food safety experts and are committed to meeting or exceeding all requirements to make sure their products are safe.

For Democrats, the lesson was that the federal Food & Drug Administration (FDA) urgently needs to get the additional authorities which would be provided by passing stalled food safety legislation. They highlighted the need to give the FDA mandatory recall authority; to significantly increase FDA inspections of all facilities related to food production, processing and distribution; and to develop a rapid-response trace-back system.

Ranking Member Burgess took a different approach. He characterized the DeCoster operation as an “outlier” and indicated the salmonella outbreak linked to DeCoster operations could potentially have been prevented if the FDA had used its existing authorities. He noted in particular that once the federal Centers for Disease Control finally linked the rash of salmonella poisonings to the DeCoster farms through DNA matches, the DeCosters immediately implemented their massive egg recall voluntarily - without any need to give new powers to the FDA.

For the views of two women nearly killed by salmonella-tainted eggs, urging Congress to pass stalled food safety legislation, go to:

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