Caged Hens: An Undercover Investigation Reveals Apparent Animal Cruelty at an Egg Farm

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Last summer saw a rare détente between animal-rights advocates and industrial agriculture. The Humane Society of the U.S. — the largest animal-protection group in the country — and the farming trade group the United Egg Producers announced an agreement in July 2011 to work together to seek a new federal law that would require larger cages and improved conditions for the U.S.’s 280 million egg-laying hens. The alliance would push for federal standards that would include cages that give hens up to 144 sq. in. of space each, more than double what hens have now. The Humane Society gave up its effort to ban cages altogether, while the United Egg Producers — which represents farmers who own about 80% of the nation’s hens — agreed to push for real federal regulations on animal welfare, usually anathema to Big Ag. “We don’t have to be locked in combat forever,” Humane Society chief executive Wayne Pacelle said at the time. “Our goal is the welfare of animals.”

Now a new undercover Humane Society investigation shows why those new federal rules are so important. Investigators secretly documented what appears to be inhumane and unsanitary treatment of hens at a Kreider Farms facility in Manheim, Pa. The video released by the Humane Society — which can be seen here, though it is quite graphic — shows hens in severely crowded conditions, with less than 58 sq. in. of space, and hens trapped in the wires of their cages. Worst of all are injured and dead hens, including what appears to be a decayed corpse, left next to living hens still producing eggs. Manure in three of the barns tested positive for salmonella. It’s stomach turning — both for the hens themselves and for the quality of the eggs they might be laying. “This investigation is an example of why we need a federal policy that improves the treatment of egg-laying birds,” Michael Markarian, the Humane Society’s chief policy officer, told reporters.

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The Humane Society investigator reportedly worked for Kreider — one of the biggest egg producers in the country, and notably not a member of the United Egg Producers — from January to March this year. He told the New York Times‘s Nick Kristof:

“It’s physically hard to breathe because of the ammonia” rising from manure pits below older barns, said the investigator, who would not allow his name to be used because that would prevent him from taking another undercover job in agriculture. He said that when workers needed to enter an older barn, they would first open doors and rev up exhaust fans, and then rush in to do their chores before the fumes became overwhelming.

Mice sometimes ran down egg conveyer belts, barns were thick with flies and manure in three barns tested positive for salmonella, he said. (Actually, salmonella isn’t as rare as you might think, turning up in 3 percent of egg factory farms tested by the Food and Drug Administration last year.)

Kreider Farms president Ron Kreider told Kristof that the footage taken was selective, which is certainly true, albeit still worrying — how many dead hens are too many? Later the company released a statement in response to the allegations:

The allegations by HSUS are a gross distortion of Kreider Farms, our employees and the way we care for our birds. We have no evidence of undercover activity inside our facilities, and there is no evidence that HSUS video footage was taken inside Kreider Farms. There are still many unanswered questions regarding how and when this video was shot, edited and assembled.

Based upon HSUS’s recent accusations, three official, spontaneous inspections of our chicken houses were held on April 11, including from the Pennsylvania State Board of Veterinary Medicine. All three inspections provided us with a ‘clean bill of health.’

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Kreider Farms says that it supports tougher federal regulations on hen cages, which at least sets it apart from some hog and cattle farmers who oppose the deal because they fear creating a precedent for protecting animal welfare. But that transition is already under way, as states like California pass laws mandating better treatment for farm animals and large corporations like Burger King and Denny’s shift away from buying eggs from caged hens. As consumers learn more about the sometimes messy way that their food is produced, they’re demanding change, however slowly — and corporations are listening.

Ron Kreider said something revealing to Kristof: “The reality of food-processing can be off-putting to those not familiar with animal agriculture.” He’s right, of course — the number of farmers in the country is shrinking all the time, and the more divorced the average American becomes from food production, the less he or she will know about it. That tends to make farmers and ranchers angry — why are people who never farmed a day in their life telling them how to do their jobs? But the truth is that social change almost never comes from within the industry or group that needs to be reformed. It comes from outside moral pressure, and sometimes that pressure, that sense of outrage can only be brought to bear by those who aren’t familiar with the realities of farming or policing or factories. As our standards on animal welfare change, eventually, farming will change as well.

MORE: 5 Questions with Farm Sanctuary President Gene Baur