Quality Egg and two top executives admitted Tuesday to selling substandard eggs that contained a “poisonous” substance and bribing a federal inspector in a food-safety scandal that sickened tens of thousands, the Department of Justice said.
Quality Egg, an Iowa company, was once among the largest producers of shelled chicken eggs in the U.S., along with owners Austin and Peter DeCoster, pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal charges in a massive nationwide salmonella outbreak in 2010.
The outbreak sickened tens of thousands of people and forced the recall of 500 million eggs.
Quality Egg pleaded guilty to selling eggs mislabeled to hide how old they were; giving cash bribes to a U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) inspector to approve and allow poor-quality chicken eggs to be sold to the public; and introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, according to the department.
Quality Egg acknowledged that, on at least two occasions in 2010, Tony Wasmund or another employee gave a cash bribe to a USDA inspector to allow tainted eggs to be sold. The eggs had been “red-tagged” for failing to meet minimum USDA quality grade standards.
Wasmund, 63, pleaded guilty in 2012 to conspiracy to bribe a public official, selling restricted eggs with intent to defraud and related charges. He is scheduled for sentencing before Judge Mark Bennett on September 12.
Plea agreements filed Monday indicate the company sold the tainted eggs for about eight months starting in January 2010. Prosecutors said there was no evidence that the DeCosters knew they were selling tainted products, but they ran the company and were responsible for its activities.
The company has agreed to pay about $6.8 million in fines under terms of a plea agreement revealed in federal court in Sioux City, Iowa. The DeCosters also each pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. Each of the men paid the court $100,000, which will be applied toward fines.
Sentencing by Judge Bennett could prove to be an issue for one DeCoster brother. The elder DeCoster’s farms have been tied to deadly salmonella outbreaks dating back to the 1980s. In 2003 Bennett sentenced DeCoster to five years of probation for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
The DeCosters could each face up to a year in prison and pay additional restitution.
Perhaps if the two owners of Quality Egg serve time in prison, in addition to the hefty fines, it will be a lesson to other companies not to endanger the public for their profits.
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