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prisonedchickensIt seems more people than ever are talking about chickens, and I love it. From California’s Proposition 2 ― which will, among other things, ban the use of battery cages for egg production in the state ― to undercover investigations inside factory farms, there’s never been a larger spotlight focused on the US poultry industry. And trust me, they hate it.

Much of the credit for this, I think, goes to Karen Davis, who founded an advocacy group for chickens and turkeys, United Poultry Concerns (UPC), in 1990. Few people have done as much as Karen to raise awareness about the plight of birds people want to eat. She is one of those tireless activists many of us wish we could be like: a consistent, well-informed, dedicated voice who never seems to miss an opportunity to speak up for animals. Take International Respect for Chickens Day, for example. Karen launched this annual event four years ago to celebrate chickens throughout the world and protest the bleakness of their lives in farming operations. (Click here for details about the next International Respect for Chickens Day, coming up on May 4.)

A considerable amount of her activist time is engaged in writing, and Karen’s latest effort is a complete revision of her book Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs (Book Publishing Co.), first published 13 years ago. This is without a doubt one of the most important books an animal advocate can read. Not only is it critical for activists to be up to date on issues involving animal cruelty, but chickens are by far the most abused beings in animal agribusiness ― indeed, Karen describes them as “creatures of the earth who no longer live on the land” ― making it even more essential that we’re able to speak from a place of knowledge in order to defend them.

The statistics regarding humanity’s abuse of chickens are staggering, as Karen observes in the book’s preface:

“While much has happened since Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs first appeared in 1996, little has changed for the chickens themselves, except that their lives have become, as a global phenomenon, even more miserable. Instead of 7.5 billion chickens being slaughtered in the mid-1990s in the United States, nearly 10 billion chickens are now being slaughtered, with parallel rises in other countries reflecting the expansion of chicken consumption and industrialized production into Latin America, China, India, Africa, Russia, Mexico, and elsewhere. Throughout the world, over 40 billion chickens are now being slaughtered for meat each year, and over 5 billion hens are in battery cages, many of them in egg-production complexes holding up to a million or more birds.”

Covering the history, lives, and deaths of chickens, Karen explains how poultry farming grew from a relatively small endeavor (in 1830, the average US farm had only 23 chickens) into a global, mass-production enterprise that has invented such miseries as “debeaking” (cutting two-thirds of the beak from an egg-laying hen’s face without pain relief); cramming hens into battery cages so they can barely move; bleeding out birds who are still conscious; forced molting, during which a hen is starved for up to two weeks; a host of infectious diseases, routinely combated with heavy doses of antibiotics; transporting birds, many of them now missing wings or legs, long distances without food or water; and the callous extermination of hundreds of millions of male chicks in the egg industry each year, to name but a few.

This is a well-documented indictment of the poultry industry and what can only be called its contempt for the very birds it relies on to make a profit. I don’t know what other word to use to describe a business that would let a laying hen whose egg production has declined starve in the last days of her life just to save the farmer a few pennies in feed. That’s some thanks to a sentient animal who has endured 17 to 24 months crammed into a battery cage and denied nearly every natural instinct. As Karen notes, factory farmers have become adept at defending themselves, even to the point of being ridiculous. “The egg industry thinks nothing of claiming that a mutilated hen in a cage is ‘happy,’ ‘content,’ and ‘singing,’” she writes, “yet will turn around and try to intimidate you with accusations of ‘anthropomorphism’ if you logically insist that the hen is miserable.”

One of the characteristics of Karen’s books I’ve always appreciated is her considerable talent as a writer. It can be challenging to transform a vast amount of research and information into a readable narrative, and Karen does it with such style that her books never read like dull, academic texts. Moreover, it is clear that she regards fowl as very special creatures. Karen has devoted her life to them, and, in addition to her outreach efforts, she provides a home to many chickens, turkeys, and other birds rescued from avian concentration camps. This book is obviously a labor of love.

Chickens have been labeled cowardly and “bird-brained,” but Karen debunks these myths with examples demonstrating their courage and intelligence. For instance, she writes that “Far from being ‘chicken,’ roosters and hens are legendary for bravery…. Our tiny Bantam rooster, Bantu, would flash out of the bushes and repeatedly attack our legs, his body tense, his eyes riveted on our shins, lest we should threaten his beloved hens.”

Though Karen encourages readers to visit factory farms and see what goes on behind closed doors, the reality is few of us will ever have the opportunity to venture inside the houses of horror in which “broiler” chickens are raised for meat or hens are confined to produce eggs. Fortunately, she is able to guide us through these animal factories, explaining in great detail precisely what goes on inside, and that knowledge not only solidifies our commitment to protecting animals, but it aids our ability to effectively communicate, making our activism much more powerful.

With the world alert to the threat of a pandemic flu virus, as well as concerns about food safety, global warming, genetic engineering, and the growing taste for “healthier” animal flesh, there’s never been a better time to pick up a copy of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs.

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.


Nathan Runkle

Nathan Runkle

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.


Mercy For Animals is a nonprofit organization, funded by contributions from supporters. If you’d like to help MFA continue their investigative work ― or any of their other outstanding efforts ― please consider making a tax-deductible donation.

josh_balkJosh Balk is the outreach director of the Humane Society of the United States’ factory farming campaign, where he works with corporations to end their purchasing from factory farms that use the most intensive confinement devices, such as battery cages, gestation crates and veal crates. As part of HSUS’ “No Battery Eggs Campaign,” grocery stores, fast food chains, food service providers and hundreds of universities have moved away from buying and selling eggs from caged hens. Josh took time out from his busy schedule to answer a few questions regarding his activism, what brought him to the movement and how even one person can make a difference for animals.


What was your “a-ha” moment when you decided to go vegan?

I went vegan about eight years ago after watching the documentaries The Auction Block and Hope for the Hopeless. The first video is about the cruelty endured by dairy cows and other animals at livestock auctions and the second is about the battery cage-egg industry. Ironically, prior to coming to HSUS, I went on to work for Compassion Over Killing for three years, where I conducted undercover investigations, worked with Washington, DC, restaurants to add vegan items to their menu and did tons of vegan outreach to consumers. 


Could you describe the industry cruelties you saw in those two documentaries?

The Auction Block, filmed by Compassion Over Killing, is a behind-the-scenes look at several farm animal auctions where dairy cows, their calves and other animals are sold to the highest bidder, many times to factory farms and slaughterhouses. Inside the closed doors of auction houses, animals are often kicked, shocked with electric prods, dragged by their legs and beaten. I can’t imagine the confusion and fear they’re undergoing, especially the calves who only a short time earlier were taken away from their nursing mothers.

Hope for the Hopeless, another Compassion Over Killing documentary, shows what’s it’s like inside a giant egg factory farm where hundreds of thousands of hens are confined inside barren battery cages. These living, feeling beings are turned into egg-producing machines within an industrial assembly line. There’s little consideration for their welfare other than providing them water and food — the barest necessities to keep them alive for another day’s worth of production. They’re given so little space they can’t even spread their wings. It’s like forcing someone to live in an elevator with six other people for your entire life.


You’re well known in the movement for working with college campuses, getting their dining halls to buy cage-free eggs. Does that take up the bulk of your activism?

So far, more than 350 universities in the country have eliminated or reduced their use of battery eggs. While I’d love to take credit for this enormous success, most of the victories are due to the relentless and effective activists on college campuses I’ve had the pleasure to work with over the years.

That said, most of my time is spent working with major retailers, helping them move away from using the cruelest animal products and adding vegan items to their product line. Working with corporations to enact purchasing policies that help animals is one of the most effective things we can do for farm animals.


Can you explain what the Cage-Free Campus campaign is?

The Cage-Free Campus campaign is one of HSUS’ signature campaigns to help abolish battery cages. University cafeterias often use hundreds of thousands, sometimes millions, of eggs a year. Whether anyone likes it or not, this will be the case for the foreseeable future. The question is: Is it better that these eggs come from hens confined in cages so small they can barely move for their entire lives, or from hens living in a cage-free environment where they’re at least able to lay eggs in a nest, dust bathe, perch, flap their wings and walk? I think the answer is clear.

Of course, “cage-free” doesn’t necessarily mean “cruelty-free.” However, while cage-free hens can and do still suffer, it doesn’t mean we should ignore that the alternative for most major egg buyers, including universities, is eggs from caged hens who are given less space to live than a single sheet of paper. In other words, cafeterias aren’t likely to stop serving eggs anytime soon, but they may stop serving the cruelest types of eggs.

I think most animal advocates would agree that putting an end to battery cages would reduce an immense amount of animal suffering. It’s important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good and force millions of hens we all know are going to be exploited to wait until a future utopia exists before they’re at least freed from the misery of battery cages. In order to so, we have to get major egg users in the country to stop buying eggs from these extreme confinement systems. 


You’ve also helped activists overseas working on the same goal. For example, Mahi Klosterhalfen has made some real progress for hens in Europe. Are you open to working with activists in other parts of the world to help them with cage-free campaigns?

Over the past few years I’ve had the honor of working with some of the best animal advocates from around the world. Mahi’s unbelievable work in Germany getting major retailers to end their sales of eggs from caged hens is a testament to his tenacious and effective activism. He’s one of the best activists the animals have; Compassion in World Farming is lucky have him run its German campaigns.

Up in Canada, Bruce Passmore has engineered a campaign that has resulted in numerous cities passing government resolutions opposing battery cages and has convinced some of the largest universities in the country to stop using battery eggs in their cafeteria.

And down in Australia, Kathleen Chapman is launching a veg commercial campaign similar to what Compassion Over Killing and Mercy For Animals have done in the U.S. This is after she got her university to be the first to switch away from battery eggs.

There’s no reason why others can’t duplicate the efforts of these dedicated individuals. I’d be more than happy to work with anyone from any part of the world on campaigns to help farm animals. Billions of animals suffer worldwide, and it’s going to take a global effort to win tangible advances for them.


What’s the best piece of activism advice you ever received?

Something I learned from many of my heroes in the animal protection movement is that I should make strategic decisions as an activist with the end goal being reducing as much animal suffering as possible. Since roughly 95 percent of animal exploitation in the U.S. goes on behind the closed doors of factory farms, I’ve made it may life’s mission to help those animals raised for food. You get the best bang for your activist buck, so to speak, by working to help farm animals.

The path I chose — corporate and university outreach ― isn’t the only way to help farm animals, but it’s the way I think I’m most effective. Others, like one of my heroes, Jon Camp from Vegan Outreach, give out tens of thousands of booklets every year to college students encouraging them to eat less meat as part of the Adopt-A-College program. Another hero of mine, Kath Rogers from Animal Protection and Rescue League, is in the midst of transforming her hometown of San Diego into the most vegan-friendly, anti-factory farming city in the country. Whatever our interest or our skill set, there’s always something each of us can do to have a major impact in the lives of farm animals. 


Can you offer any parting advice to the individual activist who doesn’t work with an organization? Are there any simple things they can do to reach out to restaurants, for example, or approach their college?

The great thing about animal activism is that one person can make a tremendous difference. One way for students to get involved ― on the individual level ― is to meet with their dining director about moving away from using eggs from caged hens and/or add vegan options to the menu. There are numerous universities that have stopped serving battery-caged eggs and added vegan options because one student brought this issue to the attention of the dining staff.

For instance, at Georgetown University, just one student met with the director of dining, and only a few weeks later the entire university ended its support for battery-cage confinement and went exclusively cage-free. The university used one and a half million eggs a year, meaning that one victory led to improving the lives of literally thousands of animals. If someone is interested in doing this type of effort at his or her university, they should feel free to contact me at  

Welcome to the official blog for Striking at the Roots by Mark Hawthorne, your source for interviews, profiles, and advice for more effective animal activism.

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