As documentaries such as Meet Your Meat and Earthlings illustrate, there’s nothing quite as jarring as seeing animal cruelty with your own eyes. Because few people are able to venture inside a battery egg farm, slaughterhouse or other animal factory (nor, frankly, would most people want to), activists are using hidden cameras as a tool to confront consumers with the suffering animals endure behind closed doors. These videos could also lead to animal-cruelty charges against those perpetrating abuse.
The latest example of this is Mercy For Animals’ investigation into Quality Egg of New England. From December 16, 2008, to February 1, 2009, an MFA investigator worked undercover at Quality Egg in Maine documenting such abuses as management and workers callously kicking live hens into manure pits, where they either drowned in liquid feces or likely died slow and painful deaths from illness, injury or starvation; employees killing birds by grabbing their necks and swinging them around in circles; and hens suffering from broken bones, bloody open wounds and untreated infections.
MFA turned their video over to authorities, and yesterday policed raided Quality Egg, spending eight hours gathering additional evidence. Eggs from Quality Egg, one of the largest producers of brown eggs in the United States, are sold primarily under the label of “Eggland’s Best” and are distributed in Shaw’s, Stop & Shop, Wal-Mart, Hannaford and other stores.
I caught up with Nathan Runkle, Mercy For Animals’ executive director, as he was changing flights today, and we chatted about this new investigation and what it takes to be an undercover investigator.
First of all, Nathan, can you describe what your investigator found?
The birds at Quality Egg are kept in battery cages that are stacked three tiers high. Each cage, as you know, is the size of a file-cabinet drawer. At this facility, they confine four to six birds per cage, so each bird has less space than a notebook-size piece of paper on which to live. We found birds suffering from broken bones, uterine prolapse, untreated infections. There were birds who were trapped under the wires of their cages, many of them left to die of starvation or dehydration; dead birds left to rot and decompose with birds still producing eggs for human consumption. Our investigator documented 49 separate incidents of live birds being thrown away into trash cans and left to suffer there, sometimes for three days. He also witnessed employees dumping dead birds on top of live birds in trash cans so that these birds were left buried, sometimes two feet under the bodies of dead birds, to suffocate or to be crushed by the corpses.
Did the investigator tell management at the egg facility about the abuse?
Yes, he brought this to the attention of other workers and supervisors, including Jay DeCoster, the son of Jack DeCoster, who is infamous for violating environmental laws, workers’ safety laws, not only in the state of Maine but in Iowa and Ohio, where he has facilities. Whenever our investigator brought this to the attention of upper management and other employees, they told him it was not a big deal and that he should just leave the birds there. They showed a callous attitude and complete disregard for even the most basic animal care.
The investigator also documented numerous cases of employees ripping birds out of their cages, holding them by their necks and swinging them around in circles, tossing them into shed aisles and then kicking them into manure pits while the birds were still flapping, struggling and clearly alive. He found cages with large holes in the flooring, most of these cages still confining live birds. There was sharp wire protruding into the cages with the majority of floor missing, which puts the birds at risk of either getting impaled by the wire, falling into the manure pits or having difficulty accessing food in the front of the cages. He also witnessed a large hole in one of the ceilings for the entire six weeks that he worked there, even though it was in the dead of winter and exposed a lot of the birds to extreme temperatures. Again, this was something he brought to the attention of management, and they failed to take any action.
Why is it necessary for an investigator to work at a facility for six weeks to collect evidence? Is that a long time?
We don’t consider six weeks to be a long time. When we handed our footage over to some of the news stations, they asked, “How long did the investigator work there?” and we told them six weeks, and they were like, “Really? That’s it? We would have thought he’d have to work there for a year to get all this evidence.” So this is really just a snapshot of what’s taking place there. It just scratches the surface of the abuse against these animals. But for these places, it’s important for us to show that this abuse is systemic and widespread, and it’s important to document numerous conditions because the industry always tries to say a plant is a bad apple, an isolated case or say it’s just a few employees, when the truth is much of this abuse is inherent in factory farm systems and it runs rampant and largely unchecked. So for us, it was important to show a pattern of disregard and cruelty.
Bob Leclerc, the safety and compliance manager at Quality Egg, said what was in the video is not general or acceptable practice. Yet it seems every time MFA goes into an egg farm we see this kind of cruelty.
Exactly. Egg producers know that the public does not accept these conditions. We know that they are standard practices within the egg industry and that these abuses take place across the country at egg factory farms. This is the seventh undercover investigation at an egg farm that Mercy For Animals has conducted, and every single time that we enter these facilities we find a laundry list of horrific abuses to animals. The best that the egg industry can do once they’re caught red-handed on video abusing animals is to try to isolate the abuse and distance themselves from it as much as possible. We see this time and again with investigations at factory farms and slaughterhouses. They try to say they had no idea this abuse was taking place, which is usually a bold-faced lie, as is documented in our investigation; as I said, our investigator brought it to the attention of supervisors time and again. So we know they were aware of this.
When the public is watching, the egg farm’s strategy is to try to paint it as a picture of a few bad employees. But in reality, most of the abuse that the employees are engaged in is the way in which they were instructed to handle or kill birds. I don’t believe this is a case of sadistic abuse; I believe this is how most of those employees were trained to kill birds.
You mean swinging hens around by their necks?
This is a common technique used to kill birds who are potentially injured or were trapped in their cages. The employees are attempting to use cervical dislocation, but this is certainly not an appropriate way of doing that. Investigators in our last three investigations have been told that is the way to kill birds. This is what’s taught.
What are the qualities you look for in an investigator?
Well, they have to be someone that can be a chameleon and blend in with their environment. They need to have nerves of steel, be quick-thinking and have a sense of adventure. Most of all, they need to be willing to give up their personal comfort and many of the luxuries of safety and being around like-minded people. They need to be willing to submerge themselves into cultures of cruelty and be around people who simply don’t care about animals the same way they do and be able to stomach it while documenting the conditions and understand that that’s what’s needed to ultimately expose and end the cruelty.
People have a false notion that being an undercover investigator is somehow glamorous, and that is certainly not the case. It’s very depressing work. You have to witness egregious cruelty on a daily basis. It’s very isolating. Our investigators are working in facilities that are located in very rural areas and they’re not able to have the same sort of friendships and support system that most activists have because they have to work undercover in secluded areas for extended periods of time.
How much contact do they have with you while they’re working undercover?
Our investigators check in and give us daily reports on what’s taking place, which allows us to make judgments on how much longer the investigation needs to continue and what evidence has been gathered.
How do you decide when you have enough evidence in a particular case?
The goal is to document enough instances of abuse to show there is a pattern. For example, in this case, we documented 49 different live birds being thrown into trash cans. This happened 70 percent of the time he was there, so seven out of 10 days live birds were being thrown away. Our investigator documented 150 cases of birds trapped in the wire of their cages without access to food or water. Certainly, if he had stayed there longer, he would have documented 300 instances of that. There are sometimes key points of information we need to obtain, such as what the corporate structure is or who the suppliers are, and sometimes it takes time to get that information.
How can activists and consumers help?
The very best thing that anyone can do to stop this abuse is to eliminate eggs from their diet. Behind the abuse of animals in agriculture is consumer demand for the product, and we can choose kindness over cruelty every time that we eat.
We’ll certainly keep people posted on this case. If it gets to the point where we’re calling on people to contact the district attorney or contact some of these grocery chains to take action, activists can get involved that way, but right now we are optimistic that cruelty charges will be filed. The Maine Department of Agriculture has been extremely proactive and receptive to this ever since we brought it to their attention ― gaining the warrant, executing the raid ― so we would like for them to have the time they need to go through the evidence and file charges.
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