Half a Billion Eggs, DeCoster, Factory Farms and Consolidation: The View From Iowa

As massive food safety outbreaks become more common, everyday Americans are starting to take a closer look at what they eat and how it's made.
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For most Americans the current egg recall of seems like another strange accident. When people wake up in the morning they don't spend a lot of time thinking about where their food comes from. As massive food safety outbreaks like the half a billion DeCoster egg recall become more common -- think spinach, peanut butter and meat -- everyday Americans are starting to take a closer look at what they eat and how it's made.

While the outbreak and its severity caught most Americans by surprise, for many Iowans, the recent salmonella outbreak and its origins are nothing new.

Wright County Eggs and Hillandale Farms both sound pretty innocuous, but they are in fact connected to a much larger narrative. For many of us who work on family farm and environmental issues in Iowa, the name Jack DeCoster is notorious. For nearly two decades, DeCoster has been the lead villain in the state's long-running battle over local control, a legal concept that would give county elected officials the right to approve or deny the citing of confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), or factory farms, depending on the facilities suitability for that county's environmental and democratic circumstances.

While the name Jack DeCoster has just begun to rise to the surface in the national debate over food safety, he has been well known to officials who have "enforcement" authority over animal food production at the state and federal level long before this current recall. DeCoster's illegal activity in the past 15 plus years in Iowa and beyond, includes environmental, labor, human rights and animal cruelty violations that would put owners in other industries to shame. During the 1990's, DeCoster came to the attention of the Clinton administration, when in 1996, Labor Secretary Robert Reich declared DeCoster's egg facilities to be "as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop we have seen."

After initially rising from poverty in Maine with a small chicken operation, DeCoster's run-ins with New England legal authorities led him to flee to Iowa, where he ventured into building hog confinements and factory farm egg facilities just in time to coincide with that state's loosening of the environmental regulations in 1995, with the passing of House File 519, which stripped all local authority from regulating factory farms.

The passage of this piece of legislation single-handedly pushed more independent hog farmers out of farming in Iowa, the nation's number one hog and egg producer, than any other law in the state's history. Since 1994, the year prior to the passage of H.F. 519, Iowa has lost nearly 72% of the state's hog farmers, as the number has dropped from 29,000 to 8,300 today. As part of the industry trend, hogs moved off pasture into massive warehouse-style confinements, hundreds of which Jack DeCoster built across much of central Iowa, laying the foundation for a "protein" producing empire that included pork, eggs and a steady stream of state and federal violations.

By 2000, Iowa Attorney General Tom Miller had declared Jack DeCoster a "habitual violator" for repeated contamination of Iowa's rivers and streams and in 2001 the Iowa Supreme Court ruled that he could no longer build hog confinements, but could invest in his son Peter's agricultural ventures.

During roughly the same time, egg production in Iowa and the rest of the country was going through a rapid restructuring as well. Between 1987 -- the final days of Ronald Reagan's presidency, which promoted the mantra of deregulation and the consolidation of corporate power -- and today, the number of egg-producing companies has declined nearly 92%, so that less than 200 companies now produce some 95% of the eggs sold in the U.S. As the size of these giant egg-laying facilities has ballooned over the years from 50,000 birds per confinement to over 300,000, it is common to have more than 1 to 2 million birds in 4 to 5 "barns" alone, the conditions inside have worsened, while the standards and oversight of these facilities has virtually disappeared.

Standing in the center of these trends is Jack DeCoster, who, not unlike other agribusiness barons, such as Don Tyson of Tyson Foods and Joe Luter of Smithfield, benefited from relaxed state and federal regulations regarding the environment, labor and corporate concentration.

For many Iowa family farmers and rural residents, and those in other states, this perfect storm of deregulation and industry consolidation cost tens of thousands of farmers their farms, emptying out the countryside and small towns of their population base as fewer educated and skill laborers are required to meet the needs of these low-wage, high-turnover jobs, which have been perversely promoted by state legislators as "economic development" for the past several decades. In addition, the rise of factory farms in Iowa has led to massive fish kills and resulted in the state's rivers and streams being declared the most polluted in the nation.

Today, America's food system is controlled by a handful of powerful corporations and men like Jack DeCoster. Their rise to power and the current abuses against the environment, human rights, animal cruelty and human safety are no accident. For the past 30 plus years, both state and federal regulators and elected officials have routinely turned their back on common sense laws that would have protected the rights of farmers, rural citizens and urban consumers and instead listened to the hollow arguments offered by agribusiness giants and their slick lobbyists.

While, President Obama has promised an end to some types of "agribusiness as usual," it remains unclear how the current Department of Justice (DOJ) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) antitrust hearings on food and agriculture will bear out beyond the five listening sessions being held this year. Like many political problems with this current administration, it will be the follow through and not the rhetoric that matter.

Already this current egg recall has revealed a stunning level of incompetence among both state and federal regulatory agencies and major food retailers that were supposed to be guarding the henhouse. And while some elected officials and the industry want to use this current fiasco to push quick legislative fixes, it would do us all better to look at the larger structural problems that centralized food production in the hands of a few agribusiness giants readily creates. If not, Americans are going to increasingly lose trust in the food on their grocery shelves as outbreaks like this continue to happen. Overall, this current recall is a perfect example why America must look to rebuild local and regional food systems that places ownership and management decisions in the hands of independent family farmers and encourages new and beginning farmers into entering the business of producing safe, healthy and nutritious food, while making sure that those who don't are not allowed back in the business of feeding our children.