Using some of the same tactics that drove food companies to move away from caged hens, the animal advocates are asking whether the conditions for the cage-free chickens are much better.
After years of pressure from animal advocates, dozens of food companies have committed themselves to “cage-free” eggs produced by hens not living in the cramped quarters known as battery cages.
Now, however, some of those same advocates are turning their attention via video cameras on the farms where cage-free eggs are produced. Using some of the same tactics that drove food companies to move away from caged hens, the advocates are asking whether the conditions for the cage-free chickens are much better.
On Thursday, Direct Action Everywhere, an all-volunteer animal-advocacy group, released a video of a stealth visit to a cage-free barn in California that produces eggs sold at Costco under its private label brand, Kirkland. The video shows dead birds on the floor and injured hens pecked by other chickens. One bird had a piece of flesh hanging off its beak.
The video focuses on a hen that Direct Action rescued and named Ella. When the organization found her in the cage-free barn, she was struggling to pull herself up and had lost most of her feathers. Her back was covered in feces.
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“There were birds rotting on the floor, and there was one dead bird that seemed to have lost her head,” said Wayne Hsiung, who helped make the video for the group, which is better known as DxE. “There were birds attacking birds, and the smell was horrible.”
The egg industry has long warned that hens living cage-free in aviary systems will experience higher mortality rates and more disease. Research by the Coalition for Sustainable Egg Supply, which is financed by egg producers and food companies, found “substantially worse” levels of aggression and cannibalism in cage-free systems, also known as aviary systems, compared to caged systems. It has also found more damage to the birds’ sternums.
“Consumers have an idyllic vision of what cage-free farming looks like,” Hsiung said. “They need to be shown the truth, which is that cage-free is far from humane.”
Yet, partly in response to graphic videos and reports about the conditions of caged chickens, consumers pressured companies including McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and Costco to turn to cage-free eggs. Those companies have rushed to promise buying only cage-free eggs in the years to come, which has pushed egg producers to invest tens of millions of dollars in aviary systems. Many animal-welfare activists have applauded those commitments.
Direct Action, which mounts protests on the treatment of animals with a goal of ending meat consumption, decided to test these companies. The group bought a carton of cage-free eggs sold under Costco’s Kirkland brand and traced them back to Pleasant Valley Farms, an egg producer in Farmington, Calif.
Volunteers from Direct Action shot the video over several visits to the barns in late September and early October. Most, but not all, of the video was taken at night. The group did not seek permission to enter the farm, Hsiung said, but he argued that the group had not broken any laws because they had suspected animal cruelty and that gave them a right to enter the property.
On Thursday evening, though, Pleasant Valley released a statement describing the group’s actions as a “break-in and trespassing” and criticized the content of the video. “The video does not accurately show what truly goes on in our barns and appears to be staged for production effect,” the farm said.
Pleasant Valley said that because members of Direct Action may have contaminated the barn, the company destroyed all the birds in it.
Costco said in a statement that the video appeared to involve just one barn out of the many that it uses to supply the eggs sold under its Kirkland brand.
“We have reinspected the barn and other operations of this supplier, and based on these inspections and prior audits, we are comfortable with the animal-welfare aspects of the operation,” the company said.
Paul Shapiro, vice president for farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States, said that cage-free hen housing was without a doubt better than battery cages, though not without problems.
“With companies like Costco,” he said, “it’s better to welcome them for taking the first steps rather than punish them for not taking the last step.”
But Hsiung said that people should understand more about what the cage-free conditions are like. “I give animal-rights activists credit for pressuring corporations to make a change,” he said. “Whether this is the right change is up for debate.”