CROTON — Embattled billionaire Austin “Jack” DeCoster, whose Iowa megafarms are at the center of the recent national egg recall, is the chief investor in Ohio Fresh Eggs LLC in Croton.
However, the Croton farm was not among the facilities in multiple states affected by the recall earlier this month, due to a salmonella outbreak which has sickened over 1,400 people according to the Centers for Disease Control.
DeCoster, who is the largest investor of record in Ohio Fresh Eggs, also owns Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, both in Iowa, which distributed more than half a billion of the recalled eggs.
The CDC has said preliminary reports show Wright County Egg was an egg supplier in 15 of the 26 event clusters where people became ill.
The 75-year-old DeCoster and his four sons are not new to controversy or public health concerns. In fact, Ohio Fresh Eggs saw its operating permits revoked in 2007 when the Ohio Department of Agriculture discovered DeCoster’s involvement with the megafarm. His name had not been listed as an owner or manager on the permit applications, and the ODA maintained at the time this was done to keep them from checking into DeCoster’s checkered environmental record when doing background checks on investors.
DeCoster, who is known to avoid the media, told the News in an exclusive interview in 2007 that he frequently visited the Croton facility, as often as twice a month, and that he did have operating input with management.
The billionaire has been targeted by environmental groups, and both human rights and animal rights activists over the years for the conditions at his farms. He has paid millions of dollars in fines for environmental and human rights violations.
In 1996, then Secretary of Labor Robert Reich called the working and housing conditions at the DeCoster Egg Farms in Maine, “atrocious,” and “horrible,” and proposed millions of dollars in fines due to the unsafe, unhealthy living conditions where many immigrant workers lived in rat infested camps with unsanitary water and no access to social workers, health care or teachers.
In 2000, the state of Iowa labeled DeCoster its first “habitual violator” of environmental laws and ordered him to pay a $150,000 fine for allowing manure to run into a local creek.
In 2002, DeCoster paid a settlement to hispanic female workers in his Iowa egg producing plants of over $1.5 million, after the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission determined the workers had been raped, sexually harassed and threatened by supervisors at the plants.
In the same year, DeCoster paid over $3 million to the government of Mexico and hispanic immigrants he employed in Maine, to settle a suit alleging racial discrimination in working and living conditions.
In 2003, he pleaded guilty in federal court to two counts of knowingly employing and rehiring illegal immigrants at his Iowa egg farms. At the time, he paid over $2 million in fines.
A raid of the Wright County farm in Iowa in 2007 resulted in the arrest and detainment of 51 illegal immigrants.
In May of this year, DeCoster’s Maine Contract farming agreed to pay $34,674.11 in fines and restitution in response to cruelty to animal charges at a Turner, Maine, egg farm according to the Sun Journal newspaper in Maine.
The paper reported DeCoster’s company also donated $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture to help monitor egg farms across that state.
Vilified by animal rights groups and environmentalists in particular, DeCoster and his wife told the News in 2007 they were well aware of DeCoster’s sullied public image.
“It hurts,” Pat said. “Especially since he’s not like what they’ve portrayed. He’d give someone the shirt off his back if they needed it.”
Having paid out some of the biggest fines in history for violations against his workers and the animals on his farms, as well as environmental noncompliance, DeCoster remains one of the richest men in agriculture, with megafarms in three states.
Shunning publicity, DeCoster said he thinks of himself as a “common man,” and never forgets where he came from.
“I’m just like you,” he said. “I get up in the morning, I get dressed, I read my Bible and I go to work.”
A quiet man who often quotes Scripture, DeCoster said he started in the egg business over 60 years ago.
“I got my first hens by default,” he said. “When I was 14 my father died on his way back from the woods, and he had 125 hens that needed fed.”
“I started with 125, and now I have 20 million hens,” he said.