LEWISTON, Maine — An animal protection group whose undercover work led to thousands of dollars in fines against the former DeCoster egg farm in Turner warns that the farm’s new operators may be little better.
On Tuesday, Land O’ Lakes subsidiary Moark LLC announced that it signed a long-term lease to take over egg production in Turner, Leeds and Winthrop at Quality Egg of New England LLC, Dorothy Egg Farm LLC and Mountain Hollow Farms LLC.
“This will likely be business as usual in terms of animal cruelty issues,” said Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals.
To back up its claim, the national group cited a 2005 incident at a Moark farm in Missouri, in which a worker was videotaped tossing live chickens into a trash bin. Moark was ordered to pay $100,000 to the local humane society as part of a court settlement, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported.
Land O’ Lakes in June paid $25 million to settle a lawsuit alleging price-fixing among some of the country’s biggest egg producers. The lawsuit alleged that egg producers inflated prices with coordinated shortages, created by killing off hens and either delaying or reducing chick hatching, according to Associated Press reports.
“Animal abuse runs rampant throughout the entire industry, and this is not an issue that’s just isolated to Quality Egg or DeCoster,” Runkle said Thursday.
Mercy for Animals’ investigation in Turner documented instances of chickens being mistreated and poorly handled. Its videos led to a state investigation of the egg farm.
The Maine Department of Agriculture and its Animal Welfare Program executed a search warrant on April 1, 2009, raiding the Plains Road facility. Workers shot photos and video, and seized both dead and live chickens.
Last year, in a negotiated settlement between Maine Contract Farming and the state, the company admitted responsibility for 10 counts of animal cruelty. According to the settlement, the company paid $2,500 in fines, plus $967.41 in restitution per count — a total of $25,000 in fines and $9,674.11 in restitution. The company also donated $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture to help monitor egg farms in the state.
However, when Moark comes to Maine, the company will have “a clean slate,” said Dr. Don Hoenig, Maine’s state veterinarian.
Officials from the Maine Department of Agriculture have already begun talks with Moark over inspections of the farms. Currently, an independent contractor works full-time at the farm under the supervision of the state to prevent a salmonella outbreak, Hoenig said. Several other workers routinely visit to check on the animals and environmental issues.
Inspectors may change but inspections will continue, Hoenig said.
“The rules have got to be followed,” he said.
He is hopeful that Moark will help the state.
“We’re looking forward to working with them,” Hoenig said. “I think it will be a smooth transition.”
A spokeswoman for Moark released a short statement Thursday afternoon.
“Moark follows industry animal welfare guidelines and will continue to do so as we take over the Maine operations,” she said.
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