Abuse on the egg farm

May 5, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
You're about to get a new perspective on breakfast. The ABC7 News I-Team has obtained new undercover video from one of California's largest egg farms.

It shows how the vast majority of eggs are produced in this country and it shows evidence of abuse.

(Warning: Some of the video is disturbing)

Activists have planned this very carefully. They want you to see these pictures before you have a chance to vote on the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act this fall. These are pictures that the egg industry, including the farmers and their lobbyists, don't want you to see.

An animal rights activist got a job this winter at Gemperle Enterprises. It's a family operation in Turlock that runs some of the biggest egg farms in the state.

"In six weeks, I saw so many instances of cruelty to the birds and neglect," said an activist.

The I-Team spoke with the undercover activist by phone. He's already on to his next assignment out of state and wants to remain anonymous.

At Gemperle, he documented the standard battery cage operation and the way that 95 percent of eggs in this country are produced.

"It is impossible to have any degree of decent animal welfare at all in a battery cage operation," said the activist.

From the moment the laying hens arrive at the farm, the treatment is rough as workers push racks of hens onto the loading dock. It is what's called the population process -- workers stuff up to eight hens into a single cage.

"It was very common because we had to work at a furious pace. It was very common for the birds' necks or wings to get caught in the wire of the cages and a lot of the workers would just keep shoving or hitting the bird to try and push them in as fast as possible," said the activist.

As a result, many of the hens had broken wings or legs, but they weren't treated by a veterinarian. For the next two years, a small cage is their home, and they can't even spread their wings.

The battery cage takes its toll.

"When you have birds that have been there for two years, they look like absolute hell, they're missing most of their feathers, their covered in wounds. You see a lot fewer birds per cage because so many of them had died off," said the activist.

When the laying hens are worn out, workers push a kill cart down the row. They yank the hens from their cages and gas them with carbon dioxide.

The activist also caught a manager on video not doing an effective job of wringing one hen's neck. The bird was still alive minutes later.

He saw a worker stomping another hen.

"As he's stomping on her, she's reacting to him stomping by trying to struggle and keeps flapping her wings and there were manure pits below those individual cages that were filled up with water, so he kicks her underneath an egg belt and she drowns in the manure water," said the activist.

Company president Steve Gemperle refused the I-Team's request for an interview. He also declined to watch the video, but provided a statement that reads, in part: "If this video is found to be true and we discover that these are workers employed by us or working on our farm, we will initiate full and complete enforcement action against these workers including immediate termination of employment if they have violated our policies and standards."

It's been very difficult to get anyone involved in the egg industry to watch the video and comment. Not Steve Gemperle or the industry's trade group United Egg Producers. Not the state Department of Food and Agriculture, the poultry experts at UC Davis, and not even the county extension agents who work with the farms.

We had to go all the way to the University of Maryland to speak with an expert in the Avian and Animal Sciences Department.

"I don't think you have to be an expert to see that the animals were not handled properly," said Dr. Inma Estevez from the University of Maryland.

Dr. Estevez works with both farmers and activists. She says it's clear Gemperle's workers were not following industry standards.

"We have to make sure that the animal caretakers understand that they have to treat the animals with respect," said Estevez.

This is such a hot button issue in California because activists have been able to get the Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act on the November ballot. It prevents farmers from confining any animal "in a manner that prevents such animal from lying down, standing up, and fully extending his or her limbs and turning around freely."

That simple wording would ban several common farming techniques -- gestation crates for pigs, veal crates and battery cages.

"Currently these birds do not have the legal protection that they need, they are not given the same protection as dogs and cats, for example, and this modest proposal would simply allow these birds to spread their wings and to turn around," said Nathan Runkle from Mercy for Animals.

The Egg Farmers' Trade Group released a statement saying the new act would mean the loss of jobs on California's family farms and lead to higher prices.

Also, HBO is planning a special with the undercover activist featured in our report.


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