Egg executives exhaust appeals over prison sentences

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A father and son whose unsanitary egg business sickened tens of thousands in 2010 have exhausted their appeals over their prison sentences.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal from Austin "Jack" DeCoster and his son Peter DeCoster, each of whom was sentenced in 2015 to three months in prison and a $100,000 fine for selling eggs contaminated with Salmonella enteritidis. Their Iowa company, Quality Egg, was ordered to pay $6.8 million in fines on a guilty plea to charges that company employees bribed a Department of Agriculture inspector and shipped eggs with false label dates and Salmonella contamination.

The DeCosters and the company also were ordered to pay more than $90,000 in restitution and additional forfeitures.

Filings by prosecutors describe years of negligence, lies, and bribery by the DeCosters and their employees prior to the 2010 outbreak, which sickened an estimated 56,000 people. They indicate Food and Drug Administration inspectors found that eggs from Quality Egg were contaminated with S enteritidis at a rate 39 times the national mean, and the contamination had spread throughout company facilities.

The filings also state that inspectors found live and dead rodents and frogs in egg-laying areas and feed areas and on conveyor belts, among other locations, as well as manure "piled to the rafters."

Austin DeCoster, owner of Quality Egg, and Peter DeCoster, chief operating officer, had entered guilty pleas to misdemeanor charges that they violated the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act by introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. A judge in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa delivered the prison sentences in April 2015, and the DeCosters appealed, arguing that a prison term was disproportionate to their conduct and that they would be imprisoned for the conduct of others, which would violate their due process rights.

A three-judge panel for the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the sentences were appropriate and the DeCosters had been sentenced for their own wrongdoing. The judges also rejected the DeCosters’ request for a panel rehearing or a hearing from the full court.

Court documents indicate FDA investigators had found that the DeCosters ignored positive Salmonella environmental tests in their company’s facilities even as positive test results arrived with increased frequency from 2006 through 2010. They also declined to implement measures described in their company’s Salmonella prevention and biosecurity plans.

Company employees falsified records of food safety measures, lied to auditors about pest control and sanitation, gave a now-deceased USDA inspector cash bribes to release eggs held for quality issues, and sold eggs with false processing and expiration dates after they had been kept days or weeks in storage, according to court documents and an announcement from federal prosecutors. Court filings also indicate Peter DeCoster lied to Walmart about the food safety and sanitation practices, and Austin DeCoster reprimanded an employee for failing to hide defective eggs from federal inspectors.

In addition to the DeCosters, Quality Egg employee Tony Wasmund, of Willmar, Minnesota, pleaded guilty in September 2012 to a charge he conspired to bribe a public official. He was sentenced in June 2015 to four years of probation.