IOWA CITY, Iowa (AP) — A California woman severely sickened after eating tainted eggs in 2010 said Thursday she welcomed the government's decision to file criminal charges against the company executives blamed for the salmonella outbreak.
Sarah Lewis said Austin "Jack" DeCoster and his son Peter DeCoster should face punishment for the pain and suffering their products inflicted on her and countless other victims of food poisoning. "It's about time," Lewis, 34, said in a phone interview from her Freedom, California, home. "They need to pay. If it means them being in jail, then good."
Federal prosecutors on Wednesday charged the DeCosters and their northern Iowa-based company, Quality Egg, with selling the eggs that caused one of the nation's largest outbreaks of foodborne illness. The government says more than 1,900 reported illnesses were linked to the outbreak, which led to an unprecedented recall of 550 million eggs, and thousands of other cases that went unreported.
The DeCosters are expected to plead guilty June 3 to misdemeanor charges of introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce. They face a maximum sentence of one year in jail, although it's not clear what prosecutors will recommend.
Quality Egg is expected to plead guilty to felony charges of bribing a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspector and selling eggs with misleading labels that made them appear fresher than they were from 2006 to 2010. Charging the company allows the government to seek fines that could climb into the millions.
Lewis, a wife and mother of two young girls, said her life will never be the same after being sickened by a custard tart she ate at a banquet from her sister's college graduation in June 2010. She was hospitalized three times in the following weeks with symptoms such as diarrhea, vomiting, fevers and severe dehydration after the salmonella "wouldn't go away."
Her nightmarish ordeal, which she shared during congressional hearing testimony in September 2010, included developing a severe infection from antibiotics. She said the illness weakened her immune system and triggered a rare autoimmune disorder, Behcet's disease, which she'll have the rest of her life.
She said she develops painful oral lesions and has to get shots and take medicine that makes her fatigued. "I never knew that I would be this sick from all that and it changed everything," said Lewis, a bookkeeper in her family's butcher shop. "I don't complain much but it's been the hardest thing ever."
Lewis said she met with the DeCosters at their request after the congressional hearing, where they also testified and apologized to victims. She said she told them, "You screwed up my life." She said it angered her when Peter DeCoster told her that he'd previously had diarrhea and vomiting and she would be "absolutely fine."
"I said, 'You know what? You have not been in and out of the hospital for three months like I have. You have no clue,'" she recalled. Peter DeCoster's attorney, Stuart Dornan, didn't return a message seeking comment.
Like more than 100 other victims, Lewis reached an undisclosed monetary settlement that was covered by one of the Decosters' corporate insurers. She said she settled before she knew she had Behcet's disease and that the payment had only covered her medical bills.
Lewis said her family's butcher shop, Freedom Meat Lockers, was proud of its spotless sanitation record and her father washes the floor every morning despite having arthritis. She's said she's still upset the DeCosters "were not upholding the food safety laws like the other businesses around them."
"They kept trying to dodge it all," she said.