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FDA Egg Plant Violations No Surprise to Former Workers

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BENTON COUNTY, Iowa - Since August 13th, more than a half billion eggs from Iowa plants returned from stores to farms because of possible salmonella contamination. Monday, the federal Food and Drug Administration released an initial inspection report on both Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms.

Federal food safety inspectors found live mice, infestations of flies and many more violations at the Iowa henhouses linked to the country's largest salmonella outbreak.

But what some critics called a "stomach churning" report about conditions at Iowa egg plants came as no surprise to two former workers.

Deanna and Robert Arnold now manage a hog farm and raise their own chickens on a farm in Benton County north of Garrison. But in past years, both worked at two of the farms owned by Jack DeCoster that were visited by inspectors. And both saw everything inspectors noted and more.

Deanna Arnold said complaining about conditions then didn't get workers too far.

"We reported it to the FDA officer working at the plant. They wouldn't do anything about it," she said.

The FDA report released in Washington, D.C. on Monday cited rodents running through henhouses, piles of manure contaminating production areas and uncaged birds both inside and outside buildings. Robert Arnold said he was distressed when working at the plant at what he saw coming in on the belts that brought freshly-laid eggs in for packaging.

"I seen junk coming in on the belts where the eggs come from the barns—food wrappers, tools, a cat...mice."

The Arnolds both had other issues working at the DeCoster egg operations and left their jobs. They moved from a home in Iowa Falls to the farm near Garrison. But they didn't leave the egg business totally.

They oversee a hog operation for an out-of-state owner. But they also raise about five dozen hens on their own. Deanna Arnold sells the eggs both to buyers who come to the farm and at farmers markets.

The Arnolds said they're careful to follow the food safety rules that apply to small scale farmers. That includes cleaning shells with a bleach solution to kill any bacteria and refrigerating the eggs before sale. Both think the salmonella scare will force big operators to clean up their act for now. But they're not so sure that will be a lasting change.

"There's a lot of good egg producers out there that follow the rules," Robert Arnold said, but "DeCoster is so huge in the business that it's hard to control a lot of it." He fears after inspectors leave and the news quiets down, violators will go back to business as usual.

For now, the FDA will not allow the sale of fresh eggs of the Iowa plants cited in the inspections until they are cleaned up.

The Arnolds are benefiting a bit personally from all the news coverage of eggs and salmonella. They are getting calls from buyers every day who never purchase farm fresh eggs before—but want to now.

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