Humane Society seeks probe of New England egg farm
BOSTON (AP) — An animal welfare group released undercover video Tuesday of what it called cruel and inhumane conditions at New England’s largest egg-producing farm, and said it had asked state and federal officials to investigate.
The video, shot by a worker at the sprawling facility in Turner, Maine, shows egg-laying hens crammed into rusting wire cages so small they were unable to spread their wings and in some cases were sharing space with the decaying carcasses of birds who had died, according to the Humane Society of the United States.
The employee had been hired to work at the facility, managed by Pennsylvania-based Hillandale Farms, but was secretly investigating for the society, said Paul Shapiro, the organization’s vice president of farm animal protection.
“Each bird in this operation has less space than a single sheet of paper on which to live her entire life,” Shapiro said during a news conference in Boston. “We saw hens that were forced to live in cages with the dead and decomposing corpses of their cage mates.”
The conditions also pose risk that eggs from the hens could become contaminated by salmonella, the Humane Society said.
The animal welfare organization is among the sponsors of a Massachusetts proposal that would ban the sale in the state of food products that come from farms where animals are kept in overly restrictive cages. Supporters hope to put the measure before voters on the November ballot.
Hillandale, which operates 10 U.S. egg production facilities, said in a statement it maintained high standards for hen care and egg safety. Since taking over management of the Maine facility last July, the company said it had been investing in new equipment and expanding training for workers.
“We reviewed the video, and we are investigating the practices in the barns where this footage may have been captured to ensure this is addressed immediately,” the statement said, adding it was Hillandale’s policy to remove dead birds from cages within one day.
Some of the carcasses had apparently been left in cages for months and were referred to as “mummies” by other workers, Shapiro said.
A year ago, the organization released undercover video footage it said showed similar mistreatment and unsanitary conditions at a Hillandale-operated egg supplier in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The Maine facility is owned by Austin “Jack” DeCoster, who along with his son Peter DeCoster, received three-month jail sentences last year for their role in a major 2010 salmonella outbreak linked to their egg facilities in Iowa. The DeCosters pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges for shipping adulterated food, and their company paid a $6.8 million fine as part of a plea agreement.
In 2010, an undercover video of conditions at the Maine farm shot by another animal welfare group led to a settlement in which the farm paid $25,000 in penalties and made a $100,000 payment to the state.
State records indicate there are 2 million to 3 million birds at the facility, said John Bott, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry.
The agency received a request from The Humane Society for an investigation and “takes allegations of this nature very seriously,” Bott said.
Hillandale said it had “proactively” asked the department for an immediate inspection of the facility.
Associated Press writer David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.