Just four months ago, I traveled to Des Moines for a press conference to announce the findings of The Humane Society of the United States' latest investigations into the living conditions of hens within industrial agribusiness. Undercover investigators from The HSUS looked at two egg factory farms -- two of the three largest operations in the nation, both located in Iowa -- and found rodents in hen houses, countless flies at the facilities, dead birds among the living in cages, and massive waste piles.
We found those conditions at Rose Acre Farms and Rembrandt Enterprises. But based on the FDA's announcement yesterday, releasing information from its forensic investigations in the wake of the massive salmonella outbreak traced to two egg factories, it sure appears we could have found the same set of circumstances at Wright County Egg (PDF) and Hillandale Farms (PDF), the two companies at the center of the largest egg recall in U.S. history.
Filth below the cages at an Iowa egg farm.
While our investigation attracted press attention in Iowa, our announcement this spring did not prompt the FDA, the USDA, or state authorities to inspect any egg farms in the state. If they had done proper follow-up, then they might have discovered a situation not only dangerous for the animals but also for consumers. The assurances from the egg industry that its operators maintain safe and clean facilities, treat animals humanely, and do it all at low cost are a charade. The eggs may seem cheap at the cash register, but the costs are passed on to consumers in terms of health costs, despoiling of the environment, animal cruelty, and worker safety issues.
Excessive manure, maggots, and mice are problems inherent to cage confinement. Cramming literally hundreds of thousands of hens into a single shed leads to an immense volume of fecal matter. According to FDA scientists (PDF): "In the poultry industry, the greatest numbers of houseflies and other disease-carrying flies occur in caged-layer houses (poultry houses with laying hens in cages for commercial egg production), where the flies breed in accumulated manure beneath the cages." Cage operations are also especially attractive to rodents because the animals can roam freely without interference from the birds, who unlike cage-free hens, can barely move an inch. The rows of cages may be stacked 12 tiers high, making cage operations intrinsically difficult to clean and disinfect between flocks. These are all factors inherent to commercial cage operations that explain why every one of the last ten published studies (PDF) comparing cage to cage-free operations found higher Salmonella rates in cage systems.
We have documented the cruelty and reckless management practices time and again, and now FDA has finally gotten in these facilities and taken a deep breath inside the foul-smelling factories and gotten an unobstructed view of the terrible cruelty. New York Times editorial writer Verlyn Klinkenborg, who comes from the small town in Iowa where Wright County Egg operates, gave us his own take on the issue in Sunday's newspaper.
Today, the Dalai Lama chimed in on the horrors of factory farming. He issued a statement to The HSUS urging egg consumers to shun battery cage eggs in favor of cage-free eggs instead. He's just the latest major public figure to call upon consumers to make animal welfare a major consideration in their food choices.
This post originally appeared on Pacelle's blog, A Humane Nation.