AUGUSTA, Maine — The state has received few complaints about the treatment of birds at the Quality Egg of New England farm over the years, state veterinarian Don Hoenig told legislators Friday as an investigation into cruelty to birds at the Turner site got under way.
“Animal welfare has not been a primary concern of ours over there,” Hoenig, director of the Division of Animal Health, told the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry during a briefing requested by the panel after receiving reports of birds being stuck in tiny cages, workers twirling hens in circles, throwing live hens into trash cans and kicking birds.
Hoenig said the department first was told in mid-March of an undercover videotaping of the birds’ mistreatment for animal-protection group Mercy For Animals. He said officials who viewed the video found it to be “deplorable, horrifying and upsetting.”
A 37-page report prepared by the animal protection advocates was turned over to an assistant attorney general, who recommended that the case be investigated by the Androscoggin County District Attorney’s Office, Hoenig said. In the meantime, the department obtained a search warrant and went to Quality Egg on Wednesday to investigate for itself, he said.
Hoenig said department staffers have been assigned to the egg farm for years and have not found cruelty to be a concern.
One staffer works 20 hours a week at the site to oversee avian influenza prevention, perform blood tests on birds and check for compliance with poultry health regulations.
Department officials also have been sent to the site in the past after complaints about odors and flies.
But Hoenig said state officials had never reported seeing anything like was depicted in the recent videos and report, “nothing approaching that.”
“There’s not a past history of animal welfare complaints at that farm,” said Hoenig, noting that he could find two complaints since 2001. “But we are pursuing this [investigation] with utmost speed and importance with the DA’s office,” he told the committee.
Quality Egg’s safety and compliance manager, Bob Leclerc, has said he found the video “personally abhorrent” and that employees shown in the video could face disciplinary action. Formerly known as DeCoster Egg Farm, Quality Egg has 3 million hens and ships more than 21 million eggs a week across the Northeast.