On behalf of Iowa’s old hens, let me be among the first to apologize. At last count some 500 million Iowa-produced eggs have been recalled in recent days, some from as far away as exotic California.
One of my favorite footnotes to this story was the accusation made in the “comments” forum attached to a Des Moines Register story last week that the media were sensationalizing the issue by counting eggs individually rather than by the dozen. I’ve not bothered to divide 500 million by 12, but however you look at it that’s a lot of eggnog.
It’s not the old hens’ fault you know. They just sit cramped into cages by the hundreds of thousands eating and drinking what’s giving them --- and laying eggs. When egg production declines, they’re sent off to become chicken soup (or at least it used to work that way; maybe they’re just killed now).
It’s not an attractive business. It’s why a lot of people don’t like factory farms. But most people probably don’t think --- or haven’t until now --- where those eggs in the grocery cooler come from. It’s also been suggested previously that if more people thought carefully about exactly where an egg does come from fewer would be consumed. But I’ve watched the process and still like eggs --- in moderation.
The leading Food and Drug Administration theory at the moment seems to be that the hens’ food supply was contaminated, possibly by rodents, and that caused them to lay contaminated eggs.
If something like this was going to happen, folks in Iowa and Maine could have told you beforehand with 90 percent probable accuracy who would be behind it --- the DeCosters, bless their hearts. Maine, because that was where they came from; Iowa, because this is where they expanded to maybe 20 years ago, launching a network of both hog confinement operations and egg factories centered in Wright County, way up north. The old man is Austin “Jack” DeCoster. In part because the Iowa Department of Natural Resources declared him an habitual offender 10 years ago and barred him from launching more operations himself, his son, Peter, now runs DeCoster in Iowa.
Wright County Egg, owned by the DeCosters and headquartered at Clarion, made the initial 380-million egg recall when salmonella was detected. Hillandale Farms recalled 170 million more just lately. It’s not clear if the DeCosters are partners in the Hillandale operation, but both Wright County Egg and Hillandale get their birds and feed from another DeCoster operation, Quality Egg.
I remember the first time the DeCosters made the front pages in Iowa during the 1990s --- after manure from their hog confinement operations began to flow too frequently into state waterways. Those were the violations that earned Jack habitual offender status. In 1997, he was fined $2 million for health and safety violations at his Maine farms. Just this year, he’s been fined in Maine for animal cruelty.
The DeCosters also have made it a practice to employ illegal immigrants. In 2002, they paid $1.5 million to settle sexual harassment charges involving supervisors and female Mexican employees of their Iowa operations. A raid in 2007 netted 51 illegal immigrants at DeCoster egg operations in Wright County. A million here, a million there, this violation, that violation --- but like the Energizer bunny, they just keep going.
Beyond the “whoops-we-poisoned you” factor, this is a sad situation for other Iowa egg producers, most of whom try to operate ethically --- at least so far as their human customers are concerned. I’m still not happy about those caged layers, however.
Chickens are our friends, you know. When I was growing up, our neighbor and friend Alice Hawkins had a pet hen --- spared for years as declining layers were culled and shipped off to soup cans. Alice could walk to the door of the henhouse, call that old hen and there she’d come running out of a sea of white to have her head scratched. So old hens have feelings, too, and I still think fondly of that bird --- and for the most part of those we raised, too, although our bantams were my favorites.
In fact I’ve been eyeing the back yard this week. A little chicken wire there, a little garden shed there, a little corn and some chicken feed, a few leghorns --- instant eggs. Maybe I could even cash in on what’s bound to be increased interest in free-range hens producing closer to home. Naaa. The neighbors would never stand for it. Besides, their yapping dogs would keep the old hens awake nights and cut production.