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New ammunition for Prop. 2 supporters

October 13, 2008 7:04:34 PM PDT
Have you thought about where the eggs for your breakfast come from? We're getting the first look at new undercover video taken at a Southern California egg ranch -- one of the biggest in the state. It is part of the Proposition 2 campaign to improve conditions for farm animals.

"I was hired as a maintenance guy in the chicken barns," says an undercover investigator for the group, Mercy for Animals, who wore a hidden camera while working at Norco Farms in Menifee during August and September.

He documented what's called a battery cage operation. This is the way that 95 percent of the eggs in this country are produced.

"All of the birds were confined in cages that were so small they couldn't stretch their wings and they couldn't walk or turn around without being in constant contact with other birds or the walls of the cages. Some of the cages were so overcrowded that the birds literally had to lie on top of each other," says the investigator.

That is the simple point of Prop. 2 -- "to prohibit the cruel confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs."

The video at Norco Ranch shows the hens have no room for natural behavior such as foraging, dust bathing or perching. We played the video for the group opposing Prop 2.

"Well, it would be great if we all had more room, but the fact of the matter is for the hens to have more room, the farmers need to make incredible improvements in their property in terms of their equipment and infrastructure and they need a lot more land, they need more space," says Julie Buckner with the "No on Prop. 2" campaign.

"If Proposition 2 passes, it will effectively force us out of business," says egg farmer Jill Benson.

The "No on 2" campaign arranged an interview with an egg farmer in Modesto. Benson defended her battery cage operation, with six hens per cage.

"The feed's in front of her, the water's in back, she can flap her wings and still socialize with her neighbors," says Benson.

The undercover video at the other ranch in Southern California raises more concerns than cage size and overcrowding. The investigator found badly decomposed carcasses in cages with hens still producing eggs for human consumption. Eggs on a conveyor belt bounced off the head of one dead bird. Other live chickens were stuck in the cages, and the investigator says the injured were left to suffer.

"I never saw a veterinarian on the property nor was there any kind of a protocol ever explained to me for what humane euthanasia would be," says the investigator.

The investigator tells the I-Team when he pointed out injured birds, the workers did not call a vet and they did not do a very good job -- or a humane job -- of killing the hens. They would keep flopping for minutes. He also found chickens suffering what is called a prolapse.

"And a prolapse is where a chicken has laid enough eggs or a particularly large egg so that her uterus turns inside out and then she's bleeding from the wound and eventually all of her insides spill out from her cavity," explains the investigator.

"Farming isn't always pretty, it isn't glamorous and for those of us who live in the cities and suburbs, we really don't have much of a chance to see how the food we eat is raised," says Buckner.

Norco Ranch is owned by Land O' Lakes, which referred our calls for comment to Moark LLC, the subsidiary that oversees the farm. Moark President and CEO Craig Willardson says the company follows strict guidelines on humane treatment, and that workers killing hens this way is wrong.

"As you described, that twirling around, that is not part of our accepted procedures. We will do an investigation up to and including termination of any employees who were involved in that activity," says Willardson.

This video comes at a tough time for the opponents of Prop. 2. They say if the bill passes, it will drive egg production out of state.

"The farmers in California, egg farmers in California, are doing the best possible job they can caring for their animals and providing us with a clean, safe food product," says Buckner.

"This is abuse that is so horrific, that if we kept dogs or cats in these conditions, it would be illegal. The very least that we can do in a civilized society is afford this basic protection to farm animals, as well," says Nathan Runkle with Mercy for Animals.

The president of the company that owns Norco Ranch agreed to give us a tour some time next week. But he says he has to get back to us on whether we can bring a television camera.

Prop. 2 would not take effect until 2015, so the egg producers would have time to adjust or move out of state, as the "No on 2" people argue.

For more on this story, read the I-Team Blog: Eggs for your breakfast.


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