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What do eggs and peanut butter have in common?

More than you’d think, apparently.

At a hearing yesterday by the US House of representatives Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on investigations, Orland Bethel, one of the egg manufacturers implicated in the current outbreak of salmonella-related illnesses, appeared but refused to testify. According to the Los Angeles Times, Bethel cited his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination in declining to answer the committee’s questions.

The moment was reminiscent of the time in February 2009 when two executives with Peanut Corporation of America (PCA) – president Stewart Parnell and plant manager Sammy Lightsey – refused to answer question before the Congressional panel investigating that salmonella outbreak, which has sickened more than 600 people, killed nine, and was been linked to the Georgia plant for which they were responsible.”

It gets better.

USA Today reports on yet another link between the two food safety-related incidents:

“Wright County Egg, one of the Iowa farms at the center of this summer's recall of 550 million eggs, earned ‘superior’ ratings for its facilities from a third-party auditor the past three years. But the auditor was the same one that gave a superior rating to the Peanut Corp. of America, whose shipments were linked to a salmonella outbreak that sickened hundreds a few years ago ... AIB International, of Manhattan, Kan., audited (the offending) egg-packing plant twice in 2008, four times in 2009 and at least once in 2010, and every time found it to be ‘superior’.”

Testimony at yesterday’s hearing by another egg producer hardly could have been reassuring to skittish consumers.

Here’s how the New York Times described the scene:

“An Iowa egg producer at the center of a nationwide outbreak of salmonella apologized to a Congressional panel on Wednesday and admitted that his family operation ‘got big quite a while before we stopped acting like we were small.’

“‘What I mean by that is we were big before we started adopting sophisticated procedures to be sure we met all of the government requirements,’ the egg producer, Austin J. DeCoster, said in testimony before a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee. He is the founder of an egg empire that has been linked over three decades to multiple deadly outbreaks of salmonella poisoning in many states.

“Mr. DeCoster’s company, Wright County Egg, and another company, Hillandale Farms, recalled more than 500 million eggs last month after health officials traced salmonella bacteria that sickened more than 1,500 people to those companies.

“A subsequent inspection by the Food and Drug Administration found that the barns of the egg producers were infested with flies, maggots and rodents, and had overflowing manure pits. Records unearthed by Congressional investigators showed that tests of Wright County Egg barns had shown the presence of toxic salmonella bacteria for years prior to the outbreak.

“‘We were horrified to learn that our eggs may have made people sick,’ Mr. DeCoster, who is known as Jack, said in a shaky voice. ‘We apologize to everyone who may have been sickened by eating our eggs’.”

“The egg producer’s frequent run-ins with regulators over labor, environmental and immigration violations at his operations have been well documented, and in his four paragraph statement, Mr. DeCoster also accepted responsibility for mistakes that the company has made in complying with government regulations over the years. Pictures taken at the DeCoster facilities of barns bursting with manure, manure flowing under barn doors, and barns with dead rodents, chickens and flies were shown at the hearing.”
KC's View:
Here’s the deal. I’m not ordering eggs in restaurants for the time being. If I buy eggs at the store, I want to be damned sure where they came from...or I’m not buying them. I’m betting I’m not alone in being disgusted by the scenes being described in the media.

I don’t have a lot of confidence in the DeCoster testimony. The Bethel refusal to talk speaks for itself. And the news about AIB International is horrifying - whatever license this company has to conduct inspections ought to be yanked immediately.

There’s a lot of debate going on about the proposed food safety law and whether it is adequate or unnecessary. But here’s where they ought to start. If you run or own a company that willfully commits food safety violations, putting short-term sales and profits ahead of consumer safety, if you are found guilty in a court of law you go to jail for a minimum 25 year sentence and have to write a check for a multi-million dollar fine that ought to represent 50 percent of your net worth. No debate, no negotiation.

And you also have to subsist in jail on a diet primarily made up of the food products you used to produce.