8th Cir. Affirms Jail Time |for Egg Company Execs

     (CN) — A father and son who operated the filthy, rodent-infested chicken farm behind a massive salmonella outbreak must serve three months in jail for food safety violations, a divided Eighth Circuit ruled.
     Jack DeCoster and his son Peter owned Quality Egg, an Iowa egg producer that operated six farms with 73 barns filled with five million laying hens. It also owned another 24 barns filled with young chickens that had not yet begun to lay eggs.
     Periodically, Quality Egg tested its facilities for salmonella and the tests came back positive with increased frequency through the fall of 2010.
     Until a new egg safety rule adopted in July 2010, however, the company was not legally obligated to conduct salmonella tests of its eggs after receiving positive environmental results.
     In summer 2010, government officials tracked a salmonella outbreak affecting 56,000 Americans to the DeCosters’ company.
     An FDA inspection of Quality Eggs’ facilities in August 2010 found live and dead rodents and frogs in the laying areas, feed areas, conveyer belts and outside the barns.
     In one building near the hens, manure was piled to the rafters and had pushed out a screen door, allowing rats into the building. Several rat traps were found on site, including one that had a dead rat decomposing on it, and investigators found the laying barns riddled with rodent holes in the baseboards.
     Tests found that the company’s eggs tested positive for salmonella at a rate of contamination 39 times higher than the national average.
     The FDA ordered the DeCosters to euthanize all five million hens, and filed criminal charges against them after finding that Quality Eggs previously falsified records about food safety measures, bribed a government official to ignore problems at its farm, and lied to auditors about pest control and sanitation costs.
     The DeCosters pleaded guilty only to misdemeanor food safety violations, but a federal judge imposed $100,000 fines on each man, and sentenced them to three months in prison.
     Although neither father or son pleaded guilty to a charge demonstrating their actual knowledge that the eggs were infected with salmonella, the judge found that sanitation problems at their farms were “egregious,” and they ignored the positive salmonella environmental tests prior to 2010.
     An Eighth Circuit panel, divided 2-1, affirmed the sentences on Wednesday.
     “On this record, the DeCosters’ three month prison sentences are not grossly disproportionate to the gravity of their misdemeanor offenses,” Judge Diane Murphy said.
     The outbreak affected up to 56,000 victims, including a child who had to be hospitalized in intensive care for eight days, and who was saved by antibiotics that permanently damaged his teeth.
     The sentencing judge did not err by finding the DeCosters’ failure to take any measures to reduce the levels of salmonella found in environmental testing blameworthy, and gave substantial weight to their prior regulatory violations and their employees’ pattern of deceiving the FDA, the majority ruled.
     Judge Arlen Beam dissented, saying the DeCosters were convicted based on “almost wholly nonculpable conduct” because there was no evidence that they knew of the food safety violations committed by their employees.

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