It seems one locally notorious egg factory in Turner has been acquired by a nationally notorious company — something that should concern all Mainers.
The sordid history of the operation is well known: Under previous ownership, the company agreed to pay hefty fines to settle an animal cruelty case. And, as Maine Public Radio reports, its former owner “has long been the subject of numerous state and federal raids, investigations and lawsuits in Iowa and Maine for immigration, labor and environmental violations. His company was also fined more than $6 million for the salmonella outbreak.”
Things may have gotten even worse.
The operation’s new owner, Hillandale, was at the center of a major scandal that sickened thousands because of salmonella and led to the nation’s largest ever egg recall. And a 2015 expose by The Humane Society of the United States at Hillandale’s Pennsylvania egg factory found bird after bird locked inside cages so small the birds couldn’t even spread their wings. Many were found dead, decaying in the cages, with the survivors laying eggs for human consumption on top of the corpses. Some of the remains had been left so long they’d become mummified and more resembled carpets on the cage floor than actual animals.
Making matters worse, Hillandale packaged the eggs laid by those confined hens in cartons depicting free range birds at pasture and, with Costco’s help, sold them to unsuspecting consumers.
Using that investigation, ABC’s Nightline ran a major national expose that outed Hillandale and Costco to millions of Americans. Celebrities, including Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling and Bill Maher, called on Costco to stop selling eggs from caged hens. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, ranking member of the Senate Subcommittee on Consumer Protection, urged the same. And yet birds remain locked in cages, where each animal has no more space than an iPad on which to live her meager life — both in Costco’s supply chain and in Hillandale’s operations.
The issue transcends that of inhumane treatment. As the Center for Food Safety notes, “the evidence is clear: Confining hens in cages increases salmonella risk.”
The good news is that some egg producers are beginning to abandon extreme confinement methods and are moving toward higher welfare, safer systems, such as cage-free production. Such systems combine modern egg production technology while improving conditions for chickens and consumers alike. And many major egg buyers — from Unilever and Burger King to Aramark and Sodexo — have publicly issued timelines for switching to 100 percent cage-free eggs.
The future of the egg industry is a cage-free one. If Hillandale is serious about wanting to improve its infamous track record on animal welfare and food safety, the first step it should take in Maine is to announce its intent to eliminate cages from its operation so animals will have the ability to engage in their normal behaviors and so consumers will be at decreased risk of being sickened.
Then Mainers would have cause to celebrate the transition of ownership of this unfortunately storied egg factory.
Paul Shapiro is the vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. Follow him on Twitter @pshapiro.