Undercover chicken farm investigator describes watching chicken abuse [PHOTOS]
Sparboe Farms was one of the nation's leading egg suppliers until last Friday, when an undercover investigation broadcast by ABC led McDonald's to dump the company.
Mercy for Animals Sparboe Farms has been rocked by an animal rights group's undercover video
Over the weekend, Lund Food Holdings and Target joined McDonald's by taking the company's eggs off its shelves. Sparboe faces a major public relations crisis over a video produced by Mercy for Animals, a Chicago nonprofit, showing animal abuse at the company's egg farms.
City Pages spoke with the investigator who went undercover at Sparboe Farms to get the story behind the animal rights group's video.
The interview was set up by Daniel Hauff, director of investigations at Mercy for Animals. The undercover investigator identified himself as "Daniel Hauff's friend" and said he got involved with the nonprofit because he wanted to take a stand "against the abuses of factory farming and the cruelty that's inherent in things such as battery cages."
He worked on several farms in three different states--Minnesota, Iowa, and Colorado--as part of Sparboe Farms' traveling bird crew. The bird crew was responsible for de-beaking baby chicks, vaccinating young birds, and loading/unloading the chickens into laying farms from semi trucks.
Chickens in their cages
The undercover investigator says he got the job with Sparboe the same way anyone else would get a job.
"I went through their interview process and was accepted as a worthwhile applicant," he says.
The investigator says he went into the farms determined to videotape conditions as they were, although he acknowledges suspecting that Sparboe's battery cages would be "overcrowded."
A worker drags a chicken through the air from a chain
"I realized in the first days that I went in there that the confinement of these birds was absolutely egregious," he says. "These birds are crammed into these tiny cages so that each bird has only as much room as a sheet of paper for their entire miserable lives. I wouldn't say entirely, but nearly every natural behavior is denied to them."
Mercy for Animals' undercover investigation lasted a little less than three months, beginning at the end of May and ending in early August. The undercover investigator says the job was not only difficult for the animals but also for the workers, who have to work hard at the farm.
"The bugs, and the dirt, and the dust, the feces, and the smell of ammonia coming from the basement, all of it is overwhelming," the source says. "It's miserable conditions in the heat, where it was over 100 degrees in the barn. It's incredibly hard to do this, and it's physically demanding and it's mentally anguishing."
The workers on Sparboe's bird crews are normal people, the investigator says, who want to provide for their families. "I don't blame them for the conditions."
But the undercover investigator also says he saw carelessness and abuse at every Sparboe facility he want to.
"When they cut the beaks off, they'd throw them back into the cages from as little as a foot away up to 3 or 4 feet away, and sometimes they would miss and the birds would hit the cage and land on the floor below, or they'd land in the feed tray where the food auger would grind them alive," the investigator says.
The investigator says workers would get mad sometimes about the "pace" that they had to work. "They would slam and throw birds. They would break their necks. In some cases it appeared to me that they'd hurt birds for their own amusement. I witnessed workers peeing, urinating in the barns. One worker even urinated on the live birds in the barn. I wasn't able to catch that on tape, but I did witness that."
A chicken gets de-beaked
While working for Sparboe Farms the undercover investigator had to work hard to keep from being caught by the company. That meant the man had to watch without interfering as animals were hurt. He says it was a difficult experience for him.
"It's very difficult. It's very emotional. It's troubling to be involved in a situation where I have concern for the well-being of these animals," he says. "To not be able to show any of that concern or say anything in terms of being able to show who I am in that way. It's really difficult for me to be in these facilities and witness these things and know that these animals are experiencing this day in and day out."
Sparboe Farms, for its part, disputes that the battery cages are inherently cruel. In a statement, company spokesman Lyle Orwig said this about battery cages:
Sparboe Farms has made several changes to its staff as a result of the investigation
"Providing an environment off the ground helps keep our eggs safe and wholesome while providing a secure environment for the chickens. If we removed the chickens from that environment, they would still flock together as this is what they naturally do. In our pen size and system they can stand, walk around and spread their wings just as they do in an open system where they would still huddle and flock together."
As for the claim that workers are overworked and staffs undermanned, Orwig acknowledged that "during certain times of the year" they "may be understaffed for a period of time."
But, he said, "there are specific work rules in each state, and we certainly follow them. Our bird crews work hard, and at times during barn repopulation crews may work overtime."
The company has responded to the video by creating a Sustainability Task Force, firing workers seen on video abusing animals, and making management changes. You can read more about its efforts here.