(AP) Investigators from the Food and Drug Administration are working to find the cause of a Salmonella outbreak that has sickened as many as 1,300 people and forced the recall of more than 500 million eggs.

Two Iowa farms linked to the disease outbreak — Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms — share suppliers of chickens and feed as well as ties to an Iowa business with a history of violating state and federal law.

Jewanna Porter, a spokeswoman for the egg industry, said Saturday the company Quality Egg supplies young chickens and feed to both Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms. The two share other suppliers, she said, but she did not name them.

The Salmonella outbreak has raised questions about federal inspections of egg farms. The FDA oversees inspections of shell eggs, while the USDA is in charge of inspecting other egg products.
William Marler, a Seattle attorney for a person who filed suit alleging illness from tainted eggs in a salad at a restaurant in Kenosha, Wis., said Sunday his firm has been retained by two dozen families and was representing a woman who was hospitalized in California.

Businessman Austin "Jack" DeCoster owns Wright County Egg and Quality Egg. Wright County Egg recalled 380 million eggs Aug. 13. A week later, Hillandale Farms recalled 170 million eggs.

DeCoster is no stranger to controversy in his food and farm operations. In 2000, Iowa designated DeCoster a "habitual violator" of environmental regulations for problems that included hog manure runoff into waterways. Other infractions DeCoster operations have been involved in include:

— In 1994, the state of Iowa assessed at least four separate penalties against DeCoster Farms for environmental violations, many of them involving hog waste.

— In 1997, DeCoster Egg Farms agreed to pay $2 million in fines to settle citations brought in 1996 for health and safety violations at DeCoster's farm in Turner, Maine. The nation's labor secretary at the time, Robert Reich, said conditions were "as dangerous and oppressive as any sweatshop." Reich's successor, Alexis Herman, called the state of the farms "simply atrocious," citing unguarded machinery, electrical hazards, exposure to harmful bacteria and other unsanitary conditions.

— In 2002, the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission announced a more than $1.5 million settlement of an employment discrimination lawsuit against DeCoster Farms on behalf of Mexican women who reported they were subjected to sexual harassment, including rape, abuse and retaliation by some supervisory workers at DeCoster's Wright County plants.

— In 2007, 51 workers were arrested during an immigration raid at six DeCoster egg farms. His farms had been the subject of at least three previous raids.

— In June 2010, Maine Contract Farming, the successor company to DeCoster Egg Farms, agreed in state court to pay $25,000 in penalties and to make a one-time payment of $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture over animal cruelty allegations that were spurred by a hidden-camera investigation by an animal welfare organization.

In a statement issued Sunday, Wright County Egg spokeswoman Hinda Mitchell said: "When issues have been raised about our farms, our management team has addressed them swiftly and effectively, working with recognized outside experts to identify and establish corrective measures for our operations. We are approaching our work with FDA in the same forthright manner."

Wright County Egg also faces a lawsuit from food distributor Dutch Farms alleging that the company used unauthorized cartons to package and sell eggs under its brand without its knowledge.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last week that investigations by 10 states since April have identified 26 cases where more than one person became ill. Preliminary information showed that Wright was the supplier in at least 15 of those cases.

Source: Associated Press