The Humane Society of the United States said Tuesday it investigated a Hillandale Farms facility in Gettysburg, Pa., where it found hundreds of thousands of tightly packed birds laying eggs in grisly conditions.
A prominent animal-rights group is raising a big stink over alleged cruelty at a massive egg farm owned by a supplier to Costco Wholesale, and is prodding the warehouse club to move more rapidly toward its stated goal of offering only cage-free eggs.
The Humane Society of the United States said Tuesday it had investigated a Hillandale Farms facility in Gettysburg, Pa., where it found hundreds of thousands of tightly packed birds laying eggs in grisly conditions.
Some even lived on top of the pancaked bodies of hens that had died and weren’t removed, said the group, which has previously praised Costco for some animal-welfare initiatives.
“We found birds that were rotting in their cages for so long that they had become mummified corpses,” Paul Shapiro, Humane Society vice president for farm-animal protection, said in a call with reporters. The group also released video (warning: graphic content) it says was secretly shot at the facility by an investigator who worked there six days a week for a month.
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The Humane Society said eggs from the facility are sold at Issaquah-based Costco under the brand “Nearby Eggs.” The cartons depict chickens roaming in front of a bucolic red farmhouse, and Shapiro said the contrast with the conditions found amounts to “a case of consumer deception.”
Costco, which didn’t respond to a request for comment, told customers in 2007 it would eventually sell eggs only from free-roaming hens, according to media reports. That year it began working with 10 chicken farms around the country to produce organic, cage-free eggs for its Kirkland Signature label, according to the Costco Connection magazine.
But a specific timeline is sorely lacking, the Humane Society says. “It’s time for Costco to step up,” Shapiro said.
A staffer for Hillandale Farms said it is “aware of the story, and we are aware of the undercover video,” but declined to provide an immediate comment.
According to The Associated Press, Hillandale said the employee who shot the video was the one who neglected to follow farm procedures. Hillandale told the news agency the images showed an isolated incident, and don’t reflect its “high standards.”
The Humane Society praised Costco in 2012 for promising to stop buying pork products from animals raised in gestation crates by 2022.
The company says on its website that it cares about the welfare of the creatures its food products stem from and wants them to be free of fear, discomfort, thirst and hunger and pain.
The question is how soon will there be enough cage-free eggs to meet the huge demand of Costco and other companies, from Starbucks to Unilever, that have promised to move in that direction. This latest controversy surfaces amid an egg-price spike due to an avian flu outbreak.
A 2013 U.S. Department of Agriculture survey found that 93.5 percent of housing in large farms consisted of conventional wire cages. Advocates hope that retailers’ animal-welfare policies, as well as recent legislation by states such as California, will push egg farmers to invest in cage-free environments.