By P.J. Huffstutter
(Reuters) - An Iowa-based egg producer and two of its executives are facing federal criminal charges in connection with a 2010 salmonella outbreak that led to the recall of more than a half-billion eggs in the United States, according to federal court documents filed Wednesday.
Austin "Jack" DeCoster - once one of the nation's largest producers of shelled chicken eggs - and his son Peter DeCoster were accused of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, according to the court documents. The men, along with their company, Quality Egg LLC, allegedly sold eggs contaminated with the strain of Salmonella Enteriditis that sickened hundreds of people in the United States.
Quality Egg also was charged with at least twice paying bribes to a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector at its egg plant to get the inspector to allow loads of eggs that failed to meet federal standards to be shipped out for sale, according to the document filed in the federal court in the Northern District of Iowa. The document says the company also used packaging labels that "made the eggs appear to be not as old as they actually were."
Attorneys representing the DeCosters and the company could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The case marks the latest move by federal prosecutors to hold farmers and food companies criminally liable for their involvement in high-profile food-contamination cases in which people have either died or become extremely ill.
Earlier this month, the former manager of Peanut Corporation of America pleaded guilty to fraud and six other criminal counts in connection with a deadly salmonella outbreak that happened five years ago. Last fall, two Colorado farmers pleaded guilty to introducing cantaloupe contaminated with Listeria into the marketplace that killed 35 people and made more than 140 others sick.
The 2010 salmonella outbreak involving the DeCosters and their farms hit just as new federal egg-safety rules had come online, which required producers to do more testing for salmonella and take other precautions.
"I commend the prosecutor for charging the DeCosters," William Marler, an attorney who represented nearly 100 people from the DeCoster salmonella outbreak, told Reuters on Wednesday. "A criminal charge sends a powerful message to every producer of food in the U.S."
Two of the charges filed against Quality Egg are felonies. The DeCosters are each being charged with a misdemeanor.
A plea hearing for both the DeCosters and the company has been set for June 3 in federal court in Sioux City, Iowa, according to court documents.
The case is U.S. v Quality Egg, LLC, Austin DeCoster and Peter DeCoster, U.S. District Court, Northern District of Iowa, No. 14-cr-3024.
(Reporting By P.J. Huffstutter; Editing by Ken Wills)