HSUS: undercover video shows hen mistreatment

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Two egg manufacturers and an industry organization began investigations after undercover video appeared to show Iowa hens that were crowded, injured, and trampled.

The Humane Society of the United States said the footage released April 7 was recorded by an HSUS employee who worked at three Rose Acre Farms egg production facilities in February and a Rembrandt Enterprises facility in March. Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president, alleged in a press conference that hens at the facilities were raised in constant suffering and that injured and ill birds had no access to veterinary care.

Pacelle maintains that the animals should be raised cage-free.

Officials with both companies said they were investigating whether the videos showed violations of their animal welfare policies. The United Egg Producers started a separate investigation of the Rose Acre Farms facilities, which are UEP-certified and, therefore, expected to meet the trade organization's animal husbandry standards.

Rose Acre Farms officials said they are committed to the health and well-being of all of the company's hens.

United Egg Producers officials said in a statement that the certification program does not tolerate animal cruelty, abuse, or neglect. It notes that, if deficiencies are found, "they will be corrected or the farm could lose its UEP certification."

Don Kellen, chief operations officer for Rembrandt Enterprises, said in a statement that in addition to the company's investigation of the videos, "we also are bringing in independent, third-party experts to conduct comprehensive audits to verify that we have appropriate animal welfare practices in place."

The American Association of Avian Pathologists' Animal Welfare and Management Committee said in a statement that, if footage of violent actions by workers came from facilities certified by the UEP program, their actions "either voluntary or coerced, [are] contrary to the training they have received and [are] not in accordance with the code of conduct that they agreed to and signed." The program requires employees to intervene if they witness acts of cruelty.

The welfare committee also said that egg producers not participating in the UEP program often have similar programs to maintain laying hen welfare. Workers who violate welfare program rules should be disciplined and kept from working with animals, the committee said.

Dr. Eric N. Gingerich, a staff veterinarian and adjunct assistant professor for the Laboratory of Avian Medicine and Pathology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine and a diplomate of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians, said employees at hen housing facilities are supposed to be trained to handle birds gently, and the violent handling of birds by employees was the most substantial problem he saw in the HSUS video. He said those actions may have occurred as a result of a lack of training, but the videos do not depict the industry as he has seen it.

Dr. Gingerich also said similar handling issues could occur in cage-free operations.

"Even in a cage-free system, we have to catch the birds that go to slaughter, and you have the same issues," Dr. Gingerich said. He noted that newer cage designs often have larger doors that typically help reduce injuries to hens.

Pacelle said the video showed the carcasses of birds that had been dead in cages for weeks. Dr. Gingerich said it can be difficult to find the bodies of all birds that die in such facilities, but he warns producers to pay closer attention if they find more than three in their facility.

The AVMA recently released a new backgrounder on laying hen housing; it is available at www.avma.org. Under the "Issues" heading, click on "Animal Welfare," then on "Backgrounders," then on "Laying hen housing, Welfare implications of."

The backgrounder indicates all housing systems have advantages and disadvantages. For example, housing systems without cages may allow hens to perform natural behaviors but may create more challenges for disease and injury control. Conversely, controlling disease and injury through intensive confinement can limit freedom of movement and natural behaviors.