An animal protection organization is throwing back the curtains on the West Coast's largest distributor of eggs, releasing a hidden-camera video that shows chickens being mistreated by handlers and locked in cages so small the birds can't spread their wings.
The footage, shot covertly by an undercover investigator with the group Mercy for Animals, shows workers kicking and stomping on chickens and snapping the necks of sick hens. It also shows birds left with untreated wounds and crowded into cages, sometimes amid rotting corpses.
Officials with the animal protection group said the video was shot this year at Gemperle Enterprises, a Turlock farming outfit that supplies giant NuCal Foods Inc., the biggest supplier of eggs in the western United States.
Nathan Runkle, executive director of the Chicago group, said animal protection activists believe such abuse is probably the rule rather than the exception for an industry that they contend puts profits ahead of the humane treatment of animals.
"Unfortunately, we believe this abuse is likely rampant across the country," Runkle said. "As long as these birds are treated like egg-producing machines, the abuse will likely continue."
NuCal Food referred calls to Chris Myles, a spokesman for the Pacific Egg and Poultry Assn. Myles said the association condemned many of the "graphic images and activities depicted in this film," calling them "in violation of our high standards for animal welfare."
He said the vast majority of egg and poultry farms in California operated in a humane and ethical manner.
The owner of Gemperle Enterprises said the animal group was using grainy and suspect video footage to make accusations that run counter to the policies and practices of his operation.
"What I saw on that video is not what our company does," said Steve Gemperle, a second-generation owner of the egg producer. "We do not accept any abuse of farm animals. It's against our values and morals."
Coming a few months after a similar video exposing mistreatment of cows at a Chino slaughterhouse prompted a nationwide beef recall, the footage is being made public today at a news conference to promote more humane treatment of penned farm animals.
The California Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act, which is on the November ballot, seeks to ensure that farm animals are not kept in cages or pens that allow them virtually no movement.
Mercy for Animals also is asking Merced and Stanislaus counties to launch a criminal investigation into Gemperle Enterprises, which operates in both counties.
Although federal law does not regulate treatment of egg-laying chickens, state animal-cruelty regulations prohibit the mistreatment of the birds, Runkle said.
Over eight weeks in January and February, the group says, its investigator worked as a maintenance worker for Gemperle Enterprises, which employs about 180.
The group said the video showed sick and crippled birds deprived of veterinary treatment or proper euthanizing, and chickens deprived of food and drink, lacking proper care, living in filth that included rotting corpses and layers of feces.
Workers are seen on the video handling the birds so roughly that in some cases the chickens suffered injuries described by the investigator as broken bones and blunt trauma.
The birds are kept in mesh enclosures called "battery cages," sometimes more than six to a space no bigger than the drawer of a filing cabinet, Runkle said. Inside those close quarters, the fowl are unable to spread their wings or move much at all, he said.
In a letter to the Merced and Stanislaus county district attorneys, Runkle said the evidence supplied by the investigator "reveals a pervasive pattern of neglect that blatantly violates the standard of proper care and attention required for animals under California law."
The letter quotes animal health experts saying that injured poultry with no hope of recovery should be euthanized immediately.
After viewing the footage, Dr. Ned Buyukmihci, a UC Davis emeritus professor of veterinary medicine, told the group that the manner of treatment was "cruel by any normal definition of the word" and violated the "norms of conduct with respect to animal welfare and veterinary care," according to the letter.
Runkle said the group chose to infiltrate Gemperle Enterprises at random. He said the investigator, whose identify is being withheld because he remains undercover elsewhere, applied for work at several egg-producing factory farms, but Gemperle is the only one where he found work.
For the owners of Gemperle, it marked the second time in little more than two years that an animal rights group apparently gained surreptitious access to one of their facilities and shot video. In 2006, an activist working independently shot footage inside one of Gemperle's farms that was aired by KGO-TV in San Francisco.
"They won't stop until they destroy animal agriculture," Gemperle said.
Gemperle said it was unclear whether the new footage truly was shot at one of his family's farms, but said the mistreatment violated his company's policies. He said the undercover investigator should have come forward immediately to report any cruelty.