Two former egg industry executives were sentenced to three months in jail Monday for their roles in a major 2010 salmonella outbreak that sickened thousands.
Austin "Jack" DeCoster and his son, Peter DeCoster, faced up to a year in jail on charges of shipping adulterated food. They will remain free while appealing their three-month sentence.
The DeCosters wanted to avoid jail time, but U.S. District Judge Mark Bennett heeded prosecutors' calls for a tough punishment because of the widespread harm the outbreak caused.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control linked 1,939 illnesses to the outbreak, but officials estimate that up to 56,000 people may have been sickened. Investigators argue that the DeCosters knew their Iowa egg facilities were at risk for salmonella contamination before the outbreak.
The elder DeCoster, 80, of Turner, Maine, and his 51-year-old son, who lives in Clarion, Iowa, both pleaded guilty last year to introducing adulterated eggs into interstate commerce.
"I wouldn't be surprised if the judge didn't sentence them to jail, but I'd be disappointed," said food safety lawyer Bill Marler, whose firm represented more than 100 people sickened in the outbreak, ahead of the sentencing.
The DeCosters' Quality Egg company has agreed to pay a $6.8 million fine as part of a plea agreement, and the DeCosters will pay $100,000 apiece. Bennett has the authority to order different fines.
Quality Egg has admitted that workers knowingly shipped eggs with false processing and expiration dates to fool state regulators and retail customers about their age and bribed a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector at least twice to approve sales of poor-quality eggs. It's unclear when or how the DeCosters learned about the bribes, but prosecutors say that shows their disregard for food safety regulations.
Regardless of the imposed sentence, Marler said he believes the case — along with several other high-profile prosecutions in food cases, has made an impression on food producers he meets at conferences or in courtrooms.
In the past 18 months, two Colorado cantaloupe farmers were convicted and received probation in a deadly 2011 listeria outbreak, and the former owner of Peanut Corporation of America was convicted in a 2008 salmonella outbreak. The peanut executive, Stewart Parnell, has yet to be sentenced.