By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director
One of the great things about living in Washington, DC is that you can witness the drama of politics up close and personal and for free. On Wednesday I went down to the House of Representatives to attend the oversight and investigations hearing on the 500 million egg recall that took place over this past summer. The drama was to be the apology offered by Jack DeCoster and his son Peter, who run the million+ hen facility that sent the millions of eggs contaminated with Salmonella Enteritidis (SE) into the stream of commerce. More than 1,600 (1,608 to be exact) reported cases were identified.
For me the drama was less the questions put to the DeCosters. I thought it was far more powerful – and scary – to hear from two women, one 30 years old, the other over 70, who had eaten food contaminated with the SE pathogen. Each time I hear stories about what the most virulent foodborne pathogens do to victims I’m always stunned. It’s not the overnight upset stomach or throwing up/diarrhea that most of have experienced from a bout of food poisoning. Each of these women would likely have died had it not been for medical intervention. They described high fevers, severe dehydration, emergency room admissions, and days spent with IVs in their veins, unable to function or get out of bed. The older woman testified that she had permanently lost her old vitality and enjoyment of life . . . and eating had become a scary experience.
Both had conditions that compromised their immune systems, making them particularly vulnerable. The 30-year-old mother of two had consumed a custard pie made with uncooked eggs. The older victim consumed something like a crab cake with a sauce that she guessed harbored the pathogen.
The DeCosters – father and son – owners of the huge facility that produced the effected eggs – argued that they had done all they could to keep the plant running well. Sounds reasonable except for the fact that Committee investigators had photos of 8-foot-high piles of manure, maggots, hundreds of live and dead flies, buildings oozing liquid manure, rodents, holes in the floor where mice entered the plant, and piles of dead chickens. The DeCosters really couldn’t explain the discrepancy – the elder DeCoster, who former Labor Secretary Robert Reich called “a rotten egg” in a recent blog because of his many violations of the law – said “we were small and then we got big and that’s where we got into trouble.” Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA), who chairs the full committee, challenged the DeCoster’s statement that the plant is well run: “that’s not what the record indicates” naming all of the above violations – and suggesting they needed to fire their quality control manager.
Finally, the FDA’s second-in-command, Dr. Josh Sharfstein, gave compelling testimony about the new rules for egg regulation that have just gone into effect allowing the FDA to set stronger standards for egg production, while also stressing the importance of passing the food safety bill that is being held up by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) in the Senate because it will give the FDA mandatory recall powers (which they lack today). Two other dramatic moments took place: ranking member Michael Burgess (R-TX) and Subcommittee Chairman Bart Stupak (D-MI) nearly came to blows over procedural issues, with Burgess constantly complaining he wasn’t given his allotted time to speak, and Stupak eventually turning off his microphone.
And the moment the DeCosters sat down to testify, a small group of protesters arose from their seats, holding up a banner and chanting that factory farming egg production is corrupt and should be stopped. They were escorted out of the hearing room by Capital Police.
You can understand why I talked about the drama of politics. On a serious note, if anyone wonders why we need improved food safety rules, the harrowing stories of these two women – victims of a virulent salmonella strain – should provide the answer. Now if we could just get Senator Coburn to lift his hold on the bill.