WASHINGTON (AP) — The Iowa egg farm at the center of a massive salmonella outbreak received hundreds of positive results for salmonella in the two years before its eggs sickened more than 1,500 people, congressional investigators said Tuesday.
In a letter to the company's owner, the House Energy and Commerce Committee said its investigators had obtained records showing Wright County Egg received 426 positive results for salmonella between 2008 and 2010. The company recalled 380 million eggs in August after its products were linked to hundreds of illnesses.
The committee said the positive results found over the last two years included 73 samples that were potentially positive for Salmonella Enteritidis, the strain responsible for the recent outbreak.
In the letter to Austin "Jack" DeCoster, the owner of Wright County Egg, committee chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and investigations subcommittee chairman Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said they were concerned that DeCoster did not inform them of the positive results when the panel asked him to provide documents in August. One of the questions the panel asked DeCoster was to show dates and results of all positive findings after microbiological testing.
"When you testify before the committee, we ask that you come prepared to explain why your facilities tested potentially positive for Salmonella Enteritidis contamination on so many occasions, what steps you took to address the contamination identified in these test results, and whether you shared these results with FDA or other federal or state food safety officials," Waxman and Stupak wrote.
DeCoster is scheduled to testify before the panel next week. In a statement attributed to unidentified officials of Wright County Egg, the company said it has already provided some positive results to the committee and the Food and Drug Administration and will continue to do so.
"While we were terribly disappointed to find positive results for Salmonella Enteritidis in eggs, the results affirmed the appropriateness of our voluntary recall," the statement said.
According to the committee, the company received as many as 67 positive results this year alone before the FDA investigation in response to the August recall. That includes one positive result for Salmonella Enteritidis on July 26, less than three weeks before the company recalled the eggs. The recall eventually grew to more than a half-billion eggs and included another company, Hillandale Farms, that also has ties to DeCoster.
The letter does not say how the committee obtained the results or from whom. The testing appears to have been done by a veterinary diagnostic laboratory at Iowa State University, which is listed on reports of the results released by the committee. A spokesman for the laboratory was not immediately available for comment.
The reports also say the results were forwarded to the Agriculture Department's National Veterinary Services Laboratories to confirm the presence of salmonella, indicating some at the department may have known about the instance of salmonella at DeCoster's farm.
A spokeswoman for the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, which oversees the labs, said the agency does thousands of confirmatory tests for universities or states and sends them back to the labs.
"Most of the time we don't even know where the samples came from," said Lyndsay Cole. "Just the presence of salmonella doesn't predict where an outbreak would be."
DeCoster is no stranger to tangling with the government. He has paid millions of dollars in state and federal fines over the years for health, safety, immigration and environmental violations at his farms.
The specific cause of the outbreak is still unknown, and though there is evidence of salmonella at the farms it is still unclear whether it was ever in the company's eggs.
Reports released last month by the FDA show many different possible sources of contamination at both farms, including rodent, bug and wild bird infestation, uncontained manure, holes in walls and other problems that could have led to the outbreak. The FDA also found positive samples of Salmonella Enteritidis.
No deaths have been reported due to the outbreak, but the number of illnesses — which can be life-threatening, especially to those with weakened immune systems — could still increase.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said this is the largest outbreak of this strain of salmonella since the start of the agency's surveillance of outbreaks in the late 1970s. For every case reported, there may be 30 that are unreported, the CDC said.
Thoroughly cooking eggs can kill the bacteria, but health officials recommended that people throw away or return the recalled eggs.