The owner of Quality Egg Inc. and his son were both sentenced to three months of prison five years after a nationwide outbreak of salmonellosis was linked to the company, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Iowa announced Monday.
Austin “Jack" DeCoster, 81, and his son, Peter Decoster, 51, also were fined $100,000 each and must serve one year of supervised release, federal prosecutors said in a news release.
Mark Bennett, a federal judge in Sioux City, Iowa, ordered the company to pay a fine of $6.79 million and placed it on probation for three years, according to the release. Finally, all three defendants were ordered to make restitution in the total amount of $83,008.19, and Quality Egg agreed to forfeit $10,000 as part of its plea agreement, the U.S. Attorney’s Office said.
Quality Egg is an egg production company that did business as Wright County Egg. A 2010 outbreak of Salmonella that caused 1,939 illnesses was linked to Wright County Egg and another business, Iowa-based Hillandale Farms, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Stretching from May 1 to Nov. 30, 2010, the Salmonella outbreak “prompted the recall of more than a half-billion shell eggs, the largest recall of its kind in history," Seattle-based food-safety attorney Bill Marler wrote in an April 11 blog. “And, while there were 1,939 confirmed infections, statistical models used to account for Salmonella illnesses in the U.S. suggest that the eggs may have sickened more than 62,000 people."
According to the government, Quality Egg personnel disregarded food-safety standards and practices for years and misled its customers, including Walmart, regarding its food-safety practices. Prosecutors argued personnel sought to conceal failures to follow food-safety standards and practices, made inaccurate claims about its biosecurity and pest control practices, and falsified documents for food-safety audits that customers required.
Last year, Quality Egg pleaded guilty to one count of bribery of a public official, one count of introducing a misbranded food into interstate commerce with intent to defraud, and one count of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. Jack and Peter DeCoster each pleaded guilty to one count of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. In the plea agreements, the father-and-son duo agreed that the shell eggs contained Salmonella Enteriditis, federal prosecutors said.
“Corporate officials are on notice. If you sell contaminated food you will be held responsible for your conduct," U.S. Attorney Kevin W. Techau for the Northern District of Iowa said in a statement. “Claims of ignorance or ‘I delegated the responsibility to someone else’ will not shield them from criminal responsibility."
Marler said recent prosecutions and sentencings in cases of foodborne illness have “sent a strong chill down the backs of more than a few corporate executives."
In September, a federal jury in Georgia found two brothers and another person culpable in a Salmonella outbreak five years ago that was tied to the now defunct Peanut Corporation of America. The outbreak led to more than 700 cases of poisoning and nine deaths.
The jury verdict was handed down several months after cantaloupe farmers Eric and Ryan Jensen of Colorado-based Jensen Farms were sentenced to five years of probation and ordered to pay restitution to victims after they pleaded guilty to charges stemming from a 2011 deadly Listeria outbreak. Last month, Marler said a number of lawsuits had been resolved that had been filed in connection with the outbreak.