|A hen cage at Kreider Farms|
By Nicholas D. Kristof, The New York Times, April 11, 2012
Supermarket eggs gleam with apparent cleanliness, and nothing might seem more wholesome than breaking one of them into a frying pan.
Think again. The Humane Society of the United States plans to release on Thursday the results of an undercover investigation into Kreider Farms, a major factory farm that produces 4.5 million eggs each day for supermarkets like ShopRite.
I’ve reviewed footage and photos taken by the investigator, who says he worked for Kreider between January and March of this year. In an interview, he portrayed an operation that has little concern for cleanliness or the welfare of hens.
“It’s physically hard to breathe because of the ammonia” rising from manure pits below older barns, said the investigator, who would not allow his name to be used because that would prevent him from taking another undercover job in agriculture. He said that when workers needed to enter an older barn, they would first open doors and rev up exhaust fans, and then rush in to do their chores before the fumes became overwhelming.
Mice sometimes ran down egg conveyer belts, barns were thick with flies and manure in three barns tested positive for salmonella, he said. (Actually, salmonella isn’t as rare as you might think, turning up in 3 percent of egg factory farms tested by the Food and Drug Administration last year.)
In some cases, 11 hens were jammed into a cage about 2 feet by 2 feet. The Humane Society says that that is even more cramped than the egg industry’s own voluntary standards — which have been widely criticized as inadequate.
An automatic feeding cart that runs between the cages sometimes decapitates hens as they’re eating, the investigator said. Corpses are pulled out if they’re easy to see, but sometimes remain for weeks in the cages, piling up until they have rotted into the wiring, he added.
Other hens have their heads stuck in the wire and are usually left to die, the investigator said.
“These allegations by the Humane Society are a gross distortion of Kreider Farms, our employees and the way we care for birds,” Ron Kreider, the president of Kreider Farms, told me in a statement. He acknowledged that three barns had tested positive for salmonella but said that consumers were never endangered.
“The reality of food processing can be off-putting to those not familiar with animal agriculture,” added Kreider, the third-generation family leader of the company. “When dealing with millions of birds, there is always a small percentage of dead birds. Older-style chicken houses will inherently contain a level of fly and rodent activity.” Kreider added that his company was leading the industry in replacing old barns with state-of-the-art ones.
Like many readers, I don’t particularly empathize with chickens. It’s their misfortune that they lack big eyes.
As a farmboy from Yamhill, Ore., I found our pigs to be razor smart, while our geese mated for life and our sheep and cattle had distinct personalities. The chickens were the least individualistic of the animals we raised. (I’ll get letters from indignant chicken-lovers, I know!)
Industrial operations like Kreider are dazzlingly efficient at producing cheap eggs, so they save consumers money. Still, I flinch at a system in which hens are reduced to widgets. Many of us do, which is why Burger King, Denny’s, Quiznos and Hardee’s have started buying more cage-free eggs.
Last year, the main egg industry trade association, United Egg Producers, joined with the Humane Society of the United States in an agreement to support new federal standards that would provide more space for hens. That was a landmark: farmers and animal protection activists agreeing on a way forward.
But Kreider Farms is not a member of United Egg Producers, and some industry outliers and cattle and hog farmers are trying to kill the deal. They fear a precedent of federal concern for animal welfare, so the legislation faces strong resistance.
For those who are wavering, think for a moment about the arc of empathy. Centuries ago, we humans amused ourselves by seeing other people executed or tortured. Until modern times, we considered it sport to see animals die horrible deaths. Now our sensibilities have evolved so that there is an outcry when animals are abused — unless it happens out of sight on farms.
The police would stop wayward boys who were torturing a stray dog, so should we allow industrialists to abuse millions of hens? Shouldn’t we agree on minimum standards?
Granted, it is not easy to settle on what constitutes cruelty to animals. But cramming 11 hens for most of their lives into a cage the size of an oven seems to cross a line.
Somehow, fried eggs don’t taste so good if you imagine the fetid barn in which they were laid.