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Tom Philpott Uncovers the Massive Egg Industry Consolidation at the Heart of the Salmonella Outbreak

For related articles and more information please visit OCA's Food Safety Resource Center or our Food Agenda 2020 page.

According to a ranking list provided in its "investor report" [PDF], Cal-Maine Foods rules the roost in the U.S. egg market. It keeps a jaw-dropping 28 million laying hens -- 8 million more than its closest competitor, Rose Acre Farms. (According to the USDA, a total of 340 million hens sit caged in U.S. factory farms for the egg market.)

By these standards, the two firms responsible for the half-billion egg recall -- DeCoster Family Farms (owner of Wright County Egg) and Hillandale Farms -- are rather modest in size. Hillandale keeps 14 million hens, and DeCoster just 9 million. The man behind DeCoster, of course, is Austin "Jack" DeCoster, denounced by the Iowa Attorney General as a "habitual violator" of the state's environmental laws and by me as "one of the most reviled figures in industrial agriculture."

DeCoster evidently views paying fines for his companies' misdeeds the way most folks see keeping up with insurance premiums or taxes: as a necessary evil, one of life's inconveniences. In other words, his companies just keep on breaking laws, and DeCoster pays up when he has to. Americans might take some small comfort in knowing that this unsavory character, with his long history of abusing workers, the environment, animals, and public health, keeps "only" 9 million hens, making him just the ninth-largest U.S. producer.

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