TURNER — The long, mint-green and mustard-yellow barns on Plains Road are nondescript from the outside, surrounded by a sea of neatly mowed lawns. At every driveway, large signs warn “no admittance without prior appointment, no exceptions” and “all vehicles entering must be disinfected.”
A metal signpost in front of the road leading to the office is empty, a simple metal skeleton. Except for a truck marked “brown eggs” parked briefly in front of one barn on a recent afternoon, there’s no way to tell what’s housed inside.
They hold more than 2 million chickens in the state’s largest egg farm.
Though it’s been reported by state officials and the media, and assumed from his own comments, that Jack DeCoster sold his Maine farms, he didn’t, according to a new filing with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
Four years ago, DeCoster’s corporate entities leased them to Moark LLC, which last month quietly leased them to Hillandale Farms Conn LLC, the same farm family involved with DeCoster in the massive Iowa salmonella outbreak in 2010.
DeCoster and his son pleaded guilty for their roles in the outbreak that sickened 1,900 people and led to a half-billion-egg recall. In April, the pair were sentenced to three months in jail but are out on appeal, according to Iowa court records.
The Hillandale Farms president who pleaded the Fifth Amendment protection against self-incrimination in front of a congressional committee investigating the salmonella outbreak is the same person who signed the new lease on the Turner egg farm, according to state records.
The DEP is considering a request from Moark to transfer all of its active permits to Hillandale.
A University of Maine veterinarian who sits on a salmonella risk reduction team for the state says Moark, a subsidiary of Land O’Lakes, had been “terrific” to work with. She hopes for the same with Hillandale.
“We are vitally interested in the health of Maine people (and) we want our state to have a poultry industry as well,” said Anne Lichtenwalner, director of UMaine’s Animal Health Lab. “We want transparency and we want collaboration, and I think that they are walking into a positive situation. One hopes that they embrace that.”
Just two months ago, Hillandale was the subject of an undercover video by the Humane Society of the United States purporting to show “filthy, cramped conditions” and mummified chickens at its Pennsylvania egg farm. Founded in Ohio in 1958, the company operates in several states.
The Humane Society tried to use the footage to pressure Costco to stop carrying Hillandale’s eggs. The wholesale chain told ABC News’ “Nightline” it believed Hillandale was “behaving appropriately” but supported “process improvement and more training for its employees.” Hillandale, a private, family-owned farm, also defended itself, blasting the video and the worker who shot it.
When Moark took over DeCoster’s Maine operations four years ago with a 10-year lease and option to buy, the company issued a news release saying the Turner, Winthrop and Leeds farms would add 3.6 million laying hens to the fold. It also offered a quote from Moark’s president about the move being good for Maine employees and the Maine economy.
This time the lease changed hands quietly, marked by a simple legal notice in a newspaper classified section and neighbor notifications, required by law. A Moark spokeswoman has repeatedly declined comment.
Messages to Hillandale, the Turner farm and DeCoster’s lawyer have not been returned.
Paperwork received by DEP last week spells out at least part of the new arrangement — and appears to leave the door open to restarting some egg operations.
Moark signed its lease over to Hillandale Farms Conn LLC on July 8. That agreement was signed by Hillandale President Orland Bethel, who in 2010 pleaded the Fifth in front of the Congressional Energy and Commerce Committee when he and DeCoster were asked to testify about the salmonella outbreak.
DeCoster’s company managed Hillandale’s Alden, Iowa, farm.
In Maine, Moark closed the Leeds egg farm in January 2013 and the Winthrop egg farm in March 2013.
“If, in the future, Hillandale decides to begin operations at either Leeds or Winthrop, it will notify the department,” according to the DEP application.
The Turner egg farm’s general manager will stay the same as under Moark. A large ad in the Sun Journal last week announced that Moark, “America’s second largest marketer of fresh shell eggs,” was hiring egg-processing employees and manure truck operators at the Turner farm address, suggesting that the public face of the farm — what there is, given the complete lack of signage and radio silence — may remain Moark.
A Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry spokesman said his department has no role in reviewing the new lease. The Turner farm, which has roughly 2.3 million birds, has a state-required “Health Plan” that covers housing, feeding and other aspects of health and welfare, John Bott said.
“The (Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry) representative has unfettered oversight, and the ability to make unannounced inspections,” he wrote in an email.
The Turner farm has a state Livestock Operating Permit that will pass to Hillandale.
Lichtenwalner, whose lab does FDA-mandated salmonella testing for this region, said that during the life of a flock, the birds’ environment (bedding, conveyor belts) are tested several times for salmonella. A positive test would trigger more testing of chickens and eggs.
In Iowa, the massive outbreak was linked to salmonella enteritidis, traced to both DeCoster’s Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms of Iowa, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Symptoms included fever, abdominal cramps and severe diarrhea.
It’s a particularly serious strain of salmonella because it “has the potential to go up into the ovaries and inside the egg, so there’s no way you could wash it off,” Lichtenwalner said.
Good hygiene, rodent control, processing eggs quickly, and happy, healthy birds are steps to prevent its spread within a barn, according to Lichtenwalner, who said Maine hasn’t had a positive environmental salmonella enteritidis test in at least six years.
“I think it’s been a combination of people working together with one goal in mind,” she said. “The producer doesn’t want to be in trouble, they don’t want to have all of the bad PR and economic problems and the obvious bad public health outcomes.”
While regular testing is FDA-mandated, participation in Maine’s salmonella risk reduction team is voluntary.
“Obviously, the whole DeCoster thing that happened (in Iowa) was quite sad and quite awful,” Lichtenwalner said. “I don’t know much about this new company and I can’t make any predictions about how it’s going to go, but I can say that Maine has been proactive in trying to work with industry. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Sen. Tom Saviello, R-Wilton, who sits on the Legislature’s Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry Committee, said he toured Moark’s Turner operations several years ago and was “extremely impressed” by what he saw inside.
He wasn’t familiar with Hillandale Farms.
“I would hope that if they’re coming into this state, the expectation we would have is they operate it at least the way I observed it in 2011,” Saviello said. “I’m sorry to see Land O’Lakes go. I really felt like they brought it to a different standard, at least what I observed. I would hope that if they did elevate it and maintain that standard, these new owners will continue to do the same thing.”
Long before its legal troubles in Iowa, DeCoster had a long history of fines and violations in Maine, paying millions over the years for labor, safety and animal cruelty charges. The state levied a fine in 2010 after the group Mercy for Animals recorded undercover video at the Turner farm exposing conditions such as crowded cages and workers kicking live hens into manure pits.
Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for the Humane Society of the United States, which recorded the undercover Hillandale video in Pennsylvania, said the Turner farm has a “sordid history of problems.”
Under Hillandale’s new management, “I would be extremely wary,” Shapiro said. “We found at its facility that it’s running in Pennsylvania huge numbers of dead animals, birds who had been living in cages with mummified corpses of their dead cage-mates. Some of these corpses were flattened like pancakes, they’d been in there for so long.”
Shapiro disputed the truthfulness of an open letter Hillandale posted on its website saying that the worker who shot the video was the same person tasked with keeping those barns clean.
“Our investigator had jobs like power-spray cleaning the outsides of the barns,” Shapiro said. “From the very first day that he was employed there, he was videotaping these mummified corpses. If you look at the video, you see dumpsters filled with hundreds and hundreds of dead animals. This was the status quo at the facility. The management knew that it was happening and was turning a blind eye toward it.”
DEP spokesman David Madore said bureaus within the agency are reviewing the application to transfer the air, solid waste, water and discharge permits to Hillandale. Madore said there’s no timeline to finish those reviews.
According to Moark and Hillandale’s legal ad, a 20-day window started Aug. 10 for people to request that the Board of Environmental Protection take over the transfer application review or call a public hearing on it. The BEP or DEP’s commissioner also can call a public hearing.