PORTLAND, Maine — An animal welfare organization is urging distributors and supermarket chains to stop selling eggs that come from a Maine farm that’s under state investigation after allegations of animal cruelty.
Mercy For Animals sent an investigator to work undercover at the Quality Egg of New England farm in Turner, said Nathan Runkle, the group’s executive director. The investigator, equipped with a video camera, captured footage of hens forced to live in cages so small they couldn’t walk or spread their wings, Runkle said Thursday.
He called on supermarket chains and national egg distributors to sever ties with Quality Egg and other farms that keep hens in tiny cages.
Bob Leclerc, Quality Egg’s safety and compliance manager, said he found the Mercy For Animals’ video “personally abhorrent.” Some employees shown in the video could face disciplinary action, he said.
“Those are not general or acceptable practices in any way, shape or manner,” Leclerc said.
Quality Egg was formerly known as DeCoster Egg Farm, which faced allegations of hiring undocumented workers and violating human rights. With 3 million hens and shipments of more than 21 million eggs a week across the Northeast, it is New England’s largest egg farm, Leclerc said.
Inspectors with the Department of Agriculture’s animal welfare division were at the farm on Wednesday searching for evidence of animal abuse. A prosecutor with the Franklin County District Attorney’s office said evidence would be reviewed before a decision is made on whether to file charges.
Ohio-based Mercy For Animals obtained the video and photos from Dec. 16 until Feb. 1 and shared them with authorities.
At a press conference Thursday, Runkle said the group’s investigation documented workers killing hens by grabbing their necks and swinging them around in circles; workers throwing live hens into trash cans; and birds suffering from broken bones, open wounds and infections.
“It also documents dead birds left to rot and decompose in cages with birds still producing eggs for human consumption,” he said.
Quality Egg is the seventh egg farm nationwide Mercy For Animals has investigated, Runkle said. The other farms are in California and Ohio.
Runkle called upon The Stop & Shop Supermarket Co., Hannaford Bros., Eggland’s Best egg company and Shaw’s Supermarkets to stop selling eggs that come from Quality Egg.
A Stop & Shop spokeswoman said the chain doesn’t do business with Quality Egg; Hannaford said it doesn’t use Quality Egg eggs in its store-brand cartons, but doesn’t control what comes in cartons of national brands of eggs; Eggland’s Best said it has no direct connection with Quality Egg and that its franchisees are required to adhere to animal welfare regulations; a Shaw’s spokeswoman said the chain doesn’t use Quality Egg as a supplier, and that its supplier of Eggland’s Best brand doesn’t use them either.
Runkle said egg cartons sold by those companies have USDA plant code numbers on them indicating they come from the farm. “Obviously somebody’s buying eggs from them,” he said.
Quality Egg is certified as using an industry standard established by United Egg Producers, a trade group representing the majority of the nation’s commercial egg farms.
The guidelines require enough space in cages for the hens to stand up, turn around and lie down. They also set standards for the birds’ diet, clean water, adequate lighting, fresh air and proper handling, said Mitch Head, spokesman for United Egg Producers in Georgia.
The trade group also will look into the allegations at Quality Egg, he said. “It will include interviews with farm management and employees, a review of training, and an on-site inspection.”
More than 90 percent of the nation’s eggs come from farms using cage systems, and United Egg Producers believes hens can be treated humanely using such systems.
Cageless systems account for a smaller percentage of eggs, and free-range hens account for an even smaller market share; those eggs are much more costly, he said.
Associated Press writer David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.