Corporate Rotten Eggs

There are rotten apples in every industry. Or perhaps I should say rotten eggs.

One especially rotten egg is Jack DeCoster, whose commercial egg agribusiness, which goes under the homey title “Wright County Egg,” headquartered in Galt, Iowa, sends eggs all over the country under many different brands. Those eggs have now laid low thousands of Americans with salmonella poisoning, and may well infect thousands more.

DeCoster is recalling 380 million eggs sold since mid-May. Another commercial egg company, also headquartered in Iowa, and in which DeCoster is a major investor, is recalling hundreds millions more.

It’s not clear how recall rotten eggs are recalled. They’re not like Toyotas. They’re already in our food supply.

But this is only the beginning of the story.

Thirteen years ago when I was Secretary of Labor, DeCoster agreed to pay a $2 million penalty (the most we could throw at him) for some of the most heinous workplace violations I’d seen. His workers had been forced to live in trailers infested with rats and handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands. It was an agricultural sweatshop.

Several people in Maine told me the fine wouldn’t stop DeCoster. He’d just consider it a cost of doing business. Evidently they were right. DeCoster’s commercial egg business has a record that would make a repeat offender blush.

In 2003, DeCoster pleaded guilty to knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants (who don’t complain about unsafe working conditions, below-minimum-wage pay, and unsanitary facilities). DeCoster paid a record $2.1 million penalty for that one.

In the 1990s he was charged by Iowa authorities for violating state environmental laws governing the runoff of manure into rivers. He continued to violate environmental laws so often that the Iowa Supreme Court approved an order barring him from building more hog structures.

In 2002 the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission fined DeCoster’s operation $1.5 million for mistreating female workers. The charges included rape, sexual harassment, and other abuses.

Earlier this year, DeCoster paid another fine to settle state animal cruelty charges against his egg operations in Maine.

In other words, the current national salmonella outbreak is just the latest in a long series of DeCoster corporate crimes. He’s fostered a culture that disregards any law standing in the way of profits. Along the way, DeCoster has abused the environment, animals, his employees, and his customers.

Corporations that play fast and loose with one set of laws are likely to cut corners on others. Look at Massey Energy Company, which owned the mine where 27 miners were killed several months ago. Massey also had a long record of law breaking, and had racked up an even longer list of alleged violations and settlements. Or consider BP, whose malfeasance even before the Gulf spill, included workplace safety violations, deaths, and other environmental disasters.

When I was Secretary of Labor, Bridgestone-Firestone’s refused to install safety equipment resulted in the maiming or deaths of its workers in Oklahoma. A few years later, its faulty tires caused still more deaths.

Some CEOs are just bad citizens, and the corporations they head get the message that the public be damned.

Too often, though, one level or agency of government doesn’t know about corporate malfeasance turned up by another level or agency of government. This is especially true when violations are settled out of court, as is now common. Government doesn’t have nearly enough inspectors or lawyers to bring every rotten egg to trial.

A national database of corporate crimes and settlements would tip off federal, state, and local inspectors to rotten eggs like Jack DeCoster’s agribusiness, Massey Energy, BP, Bridgestone Firestone, and other serial corporate offenders. Scarce inspection resources could be targeted at them rather than at the good eggs. Consumers could benefit as well.

And the rot wouldn’t spill over to other companies now under competitive pressure to treat fines and penalties as the costs of doing business.

Before we can get rid of corporate rotten eggs we need to know about them.

About Robert Reich 545 Articles

Robert Reich is the nation's 22nd Secretary of Labor and a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.

He has served as labor secretary in the Clinton administration, as an assistant to the solicitor general in the Ford administration and as head of the Federal Trade Commission's policy planning staff during the Carter administration.

He has written eleven books, including The Work of Nations, which has been translated into 22 languages; the best-sellers The Future of Success and Locked in the Cabinet, and his most recent book, Supercapitalism. His articles have appeared in the New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Mr. Reich is co-founding editor of The American Prospect magazine. His weekly commentaries on public radio’s "Marketplace" are heard by nearly five million people.

In 2003, Mr. Reich was awarded the prestigious Vaclev Havel Foundation Prize, by the former Czech president, for his pioneering work in economic and social thought. In 2005, his play, Public Exposure, broke box office records at its world premiere on Cape Cod.

Mr. Reich has been a member of the faculties of Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and of Brandeis University. He received his B.A. from Dartmouth College, his M.A. from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Scholar, and his J.D. from Yale Law School.

Visit: Robert Reich

4 Comments on Corporate Rotten Eggs

  1. Nothing wrong with your suggestion of organizing criminal information. But how about getting rid of fines which cause no corporate pain and shutting these companies down for good, instead?

  2. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said in an email statement to Bloomberg News that Toyota (TM) may face the maximum civil penalty of $16.4 million from the U.S. because it “knowingly hid a dangerous defect” that caused sudden acceleration.
    I live in the UK not sure what that equals in the $/£ exchange except that inreal terms it’s peanuts. WE KNOW ABOUT THEM YET WE STILL BUY THEIR ROTTEN CARS FROM THEIR ROTTEN DEALERS
    Toyota left no stone unturned in their pursuit of saving their reputation (spending a £3bn marketing budget in the process) MONEY TALKS. STOP BUYING THE ROTTEN CARS IF YOU WANT TO MAKE SOME DIFFERENCE.WOULD YOU BUY “Wright County Eggs,” now? THEN MORE FOOL!

  3. The main problem with Corrupt Corporate America is Corrupt politicians who have been supporting those kind of people and these politicians very successfully fool poor Americans and still get their votes.
    You cannot shut down those companies without shutting down those politicians by voting them out of the office.

  4. “His workers had been forced to live in trailers infested with rats and handle manure and dead chickens with their bare hands.”

    Nonsense. They were not forced to live anywhere at all. They could live anywhere they chose. The real problem is that they were illegal aliens. And they would not go back to Honduras or Guatemala because their living conditions would have been even worse back in their home country. Why can’t this dedicated leftist Reich tell us the real truth? Because that would be politically incorrect and he would lose his credentials with the liberal establishment.

    Let’s send all illegal aliens home and then the employers will have to treat their employees decently or they will quit.

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