The long-awaited, delayed SE hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee yielded little in the way of facts relating to the outbreak involving 1,500 diagnosed cases in consumers during May through July prompting a recall of up to 0.5 billion eggs in mid-August. Jack DeCoster was evasive and rambling in his responses to direct questions which were not answered to the satisfaction of the committee. His son Peter, the CEO of Wright County Eggs, provided some information which could be characterized as “too little, too late”.

It was however apparent that the operators at the complex with approximately 5 to 6 million hens were aware of SE infection in flocks during 2008 but from the testimony offered, appropriate corrective action was not taken. Statements by the DeCosters were at variance with the reports submitted by the FDA on conditions existing on the farms after the recall was initiated.

Before the hearing, the DeCosters had evoked the ire of Committee Chair Bart Stupak, D-Mich., relating to disclosures concerning the extent of infection. In a prepared statement, Jack DeCoster testified that he was “horrified to learn that his products might have been the cause of the illnesses.” This is analogous to the prefect of police in Casablanca being horrified at discovering gambling in the back room of Rick’s Café Américain!

At least Orland Bethel, the nominal owner of Hillandale Farms, did not waste the time of the committee in circumlocution by pleading his Fifth Amendment rights. Among other questions, he declined to address was an explanation of an e-mail discovered by committee investigators that implied that “Hillandale had to get out from under Jack DeCoster and preserve the Hillandale name since they could not continue deceiving the public.”

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The polite but firm questioning by Rep. Henry Waxman, D-Calif., and the answers provided by the DeCosters elicited the comment, “For you to come before us and say ‘it’s the feed, we have nothing to do with it’ is hard for me to believe.”

The question of culpability for the SE outbreak has been referred to the Department of Justice to determine if there were any contraventions of federal statutes.

The Deputy Commissioner of the FDA, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, made a plea for Congress to pass the Food Safety Bill that provides FDA with greater power.

“We need this bill to help us prevent another egg outbreak just like the one we’ve experienced and the one that we heard from the earlier witnesses that so devastated their lives,” said Sharfstein.