May 4, 2011

Natural Foodie: Pass law that helps egg farm? Consider history first

By Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

Among agricultural states, Maine can be thankful that it has largely escaped the clutches of industrial agricultural and factory farms. However, there is one major exception: the former DeCoster egg farms in Turner.

click image to enlarge

Laying hens live in tight quarters in this photo taken in 1996 at the former DeCoster egg farms in Turner, still doing business under new names. The company has a long history of violations of workplace, environmental and other rules.

File photo

Because of the factory farm's long history of unsavory activity in Maine and the other states where it operates, lawmakers had DeCoster in mind in 1975 when they enacted legislation requiring factory egg farms to pay minimum wages and overtime, and again in 1997 with a law allowing employees at such farms to form unions.

However, it appears that some Mainers have forgotten the company's history. Earlier this year, Rep. Dale Crafts, R-Lisbon, introduced LD 1207 to repeal the 1975 law. The bill was amended in committee on Friday to keep the 1975 law but repeal the 1997 union law. The bill now goes to the full Legislature for debate.

Fifty years after its founding, the egg farm confines roughly 5 million hens to cages in 76 barns, where they produce about 3.5 million eggs a day.

Here is an abridged timeline of the company's history in Maine.

 

1961 -- Austin "Jack" DeCoster founds AJ DeCoster Egg Farm in Turner.

 

1975 -- Maine passes a law requiring factory egg farms with 300,000 or more laying hens to pay minimum wages and overtime.

 

1976 -- DeCoster pleads guilty to allowing his truck drivers to falsify their logs and is fined $14,000.

 

1978 -- Brown beetles that breed in pits of chicken manure invade homes in Turner and surrounding towns. The following year, 31 homeowners sue DeCoster for $5 million in nuisance damages caused by the infestation. The lawsuit is later settled out of court.

 

1979 -- DeCoster sells the egg farm for $17.2 million to an Acton, Mass., corporation, whose subsidiary, Acton Food Services, will run it.

 

1980 -- The U.S. Labor Department files suit against the egg farm, alleging that it employed 11-year-olds and a 9-year-old. In the same year, the company is sued by two female workers claiming discrimination based on their gender.

 

1985 -- Acton Food Services encounters financial problems, and the state eventually pays $98,533 out of its Wage Assurance Fund to 459 egg farm workers who hadn't been paid.

Jack DeCoster buys back the company at public auction for $2.9 million, plus close to $1 million for processing equipment, after Acton goes bankrupt.

A U.S. District Court judge orders DeCoster to pay more than $200,000 in back wages to several former and present employees.

 

1986 -- A 500-foot-long barn is destroyed and 40,000 hens are reported killed in a fire at the DeCoster farm. The following summer, a Superior Court judge orders the farm to clean up more than 100,000 chicken carcasses left in piles after the fire. At the time of the 1987 cleanup, Jack DeCoster is quoted as saying he is "pretty proud of the housekeeping on my farm."

 

1988 -- New York state bans eggs from any DeCoster farm after the eggs from the company's Maryland operations are linked to a salmonella outbreak in the state. The ban is later lifted after the company agrees to test for the bacteria at all its facilities, including the ones in Maine.

The Maine Department of Environmental Protection cites DeCoster for improperly removing asbestos from barns.

U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service officials fine DeCoster $32,850 for employing illegal immigrants.

1991 -- After a four-year battle over the farm's practices that polluted aquifers and improperly handled waste, the Department of Environmental Protection approves DeCoster's expansion plans.

1992 -- Federal immigration officials arrest 17 illegal immigrants at the DeCoster farm. The company is fined $15,000. The following year, a DeCoster manager is charged with recruiting illegal immigrants and helping them obtain fake identification papers.

1995 -- The state wins a civil suit against DeCoster for violations of the Maine Civil Rights and Unfair Practices Act stemming from the company's treatment of Latino workers housed on the factory farm's grounds.

1996 -- The Occupational Health and Safety Administration fines DeCoster $3.6 million for unsafe working conditions. The fine is reduced to $2 million in a 1997 settlement agreement.

1997 -- Maine passes a law allowing workers at factory egg farms with more than 500,000 hens and more than 100 employees to unionize. The DeCoster farm is the only one that meets those criteria. Attempts to form a union at the company fail later that year.

Maine's Board of Environmental Protection fines DeCoster $143,500 for improper disposal of chicken feces and installing a septic system without approval.

DeCoster reorganizes as a limited liability company and splits into eight companies, which include Quality Egg of New England, Maine Contract Farming, Maine Ag, PFS Loading Services Inc., Turner Maintenance & Services and Northern Transportation.

 

1998 -- The Mexican government and egg farm workers sue the former DeCoster company, charging racial discrimination in housing and working conditions.

1999 -- OSHA fines five of the former DeCoster companies $235,225 for workplace violations and failure to live up to terms of a 1997 settlement agreement.

The U.S. Labor Department fines Maine Contract Farming $24,000 for workplace violations, and the company agrees to pay $4,000 in back wages.

The company pays $5 million to workers for wage and hour violations.

 

2000 -- OSHA fines four former DeCoster companies $59,900 for workplace violations, following inspections to determine compliance with the 1997 settlement agreement.

 

2002 -- OSHA fines three of the DeCoster spinoff companies $247,526 for workplace violations.

 

2003 -- A federal judge in Iowa sentences Jack DeCoster to five years of probation for knowingly and repeatedly hiring illegal workers. When he pleads guilty, he has already paid $2 million in fines and restitution. During his sentencing, an Associated Press report quotes DeCoster saying, "I'd like to apologize for the problem I caused the government. We're making sure it's fixed and won't happen again."

OSHA fines Maine Contract Farming $10,000 for workplace violations.

 

2004 -- The former DeCoster company pays $3.2 million to settle a class action suit related to illegal housing and working conditions for Latino workers, while white workers were treated differently.

OSHA fines three DeCoster spinoff companies $69,200 for workplace violations.

 

2005 -- OSHA fines Maine Contract Farming $22,500 for workplace violations.

Neighbors of the former DeCoster egg farms sue the company over excessive odors and flies.

 

2007 -- An 18-wheel tractor-trailer operated by Maine Contract Farming rolls over and dumps 24 tons of chicken manure in the yard of a Norridgewock home.

A Maine Human Rights Commission investigator finds reasonable grounds that a Maine Contract Farming manager was fired because he was an atheist. Reports at the time described Jack DeCoster as a "devout Christian."

 

2008 -- OSHA fines Maine Contract Farming $105,000 after workers were forced into a collapsed building to collect eggs and others ordered to shovel snow off the roof without safeguards.

 

2009 -- Animal-rights group Mercy for Animals releases undercover video shot at Quality Egg of New England showing live hens discarded with dead ones, workers kicking and mistreating hens, and laying hens living next to decomposing birds.

 

2010 -- Maine Contract Farming pays $25,000 in penalties and a one-time $100,000 payment to the Maine Department of Agriculture as a result of animal cruelty revealed in the undercover video. Quality Egg owner John Glessner is quoted by the Associated Press saying, "There's a history there. I guess we can't ignore it. We've just got to educate people and move forward."

OSHA fines two DeCoster spinoff companies $28,215 for workplace violations, bringing the company's total OSHA fines to $2,777,566 since 1996.

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at:

akamila@pressherald.com

Follow her on Twitter at:

Twitter.com/AveryYaleKamila

 

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