Wegmans Cruelty: An Unofficial Blog

This is an unofficial blog and informational archive related to the WEGMANSCRUELTY film and resulting campaign.

Please see that page for more information.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Group Begs Wegs: Fix Your Eggs

The Syracuse New Times -- the Central New York Alternative

Despite the "Food You Feel Good About" label on the egg cartons, animal rights groups think Wegmans and their customers should feel anything but good about the origin of those dozens. Compassionate Consumers, a small coalition of Rochester activists, said chickens at a Wegmans-owned egg farm in Wolcott aren't being treated humanely and they have the video to prove it.

In 2004, three members of the group entered the egg farm several times with video cameras after conversations with Wegmans failed to allay their fears about the chickens' treatment. The result of those furtive field trips is a sharp DVD Wegmans Cruelty and some serious criminal charges against the three activists including trespassing and felony burglary.

The 27-minute video, which screened in Syracuse at the Vegetarian Festival on Aug. 28, offers some Blair Witch-style cinematography courtesy of filming by headlamp in a dark chicken barn. It also features frightening footage of chicken corpses trampled underneath still-living hens and encrusted onto the cages, chickens with necks and wings awkwardly stuck between the bars of their cages and even chickens drowning in their own manure.

An audio track of Wegmans' manager of consumer services Jo Natale on the phone with Compassionate Consumers' Adam Durand is laid over footage from the farm. For example, as Natale assures Durand that chickens wouldn't be defecating upon each other, we see a dark brown turd hit the white feathers on the back of an unsuspecting layer. Natale's claims that chicken corpses wouldn't be left in the cages are juxtaposed against at least 25 shots of chicken cadavers, with many so long dead they're no longer recognizable but for a beak or eyeball.

While Wegmans' communications specialist Jeanne Colleluori said, "It is possible that not all of the footage came from the Wegmans egg farm," the activists clearly state in the video that they are inside the farm while filming and show a Wegmans egg truck and a Wegmans form for tallying dead chickens found while inside. The video does use footage from other egg farms, but only in the beginning, and it is clear to viewers which segments are from inside the egg farm. Also, Wegmans readily admits that the group entered the facility several times in 2004.

It's hard to say with much accuracy whether or not these birds really have it that bad because Wegmans declined to reveal much about the inner workings of the farm, citing proprietary and biosecurity concerns over things such as avian flu. Wegmans directed questions about the farm's operation to Dr. Benjamin Lucio, a veterinarian and poultry scientist who checks on the farm roughly once a month as a free service provided by Cornell University, his employer. Wegmans refused The New Times' request for a tour of the facility, once again citing biosecurity concerns.

For starters (no, not buffalo wings), layer hens are hatched and their beaks clipped and cauterized--to prevent birds from damaging each other--at a breeding facility with which Wegmans contracts. Once at Wegmans' egg farm, Lucio said the chickens are kept in battery cages 24 hours a day, inside industrial-sized barns which he estimated hold 80,000 to 100,000 birds. Between four and seven birds live in one cage, are given food and water, and must have at least 67 square inches of space--less than an 81/2-by-11-inch sheet of paper--according Wegmans' voluntary standards. Eggs roll along the angled cage bottoms onto a belt that whisks them off to the grading facility.

Lucio explained that while workers are in the buildings on a daily basis, veterinary care for the birds is limited. "Treatments are limited to the flock. We don't treat one single chicken. It's almost impossible to find one sick chicken in a chicken house of that size. Once something, such as an illness, is starting that will affect several birds, then they are treated. Most of the care the birds get is preventive. Before they arrive they're vaccinated and then kept fed and watered." Lucio added that in a facility the size of Wegmans' "there will be dead birds in the cages every day." But he said he rarely sees them, decomposed as they were in the video, when he visits the farm.

In Meat Market (Brio Press), his 2005 book on the meat, egg and dairy industries, animal advocate Eric Marcus ranks egg production as one of the cruelest animal industries. "There is no doubt in my mind that a bite of egg involves more suffering than a bite of hamburger or bacon." He cites beak searing, tight confinement, high rates of injury and bird mortality, and lack of veterinary care as his reasons for damning industrial-scale egg farming. "Layer hens are worth so little that it is never financially viable to give them individualized veterinary care," he stated bluntly. Marcus also pointed out that male chicks, as useless as bee drones, born at breeding facilities like the one that provides hens to Wegmans, are killed, either gassed or put through a grinder while still living.

However, none of these practices is illegal or out of line with U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for animal welfare. In fact, after their break-ins, Compassionate Consumers called for an investigation of Wegmans' egg farm and soon after the Wayne County district attorney's office and the New York State Police conducted an investigation of the farm that concluded there was no animal abuse.

Wegmans is "proud of our egg farm," Colleluori said. Asked about the treatment of the chickens, Natale pointed to the fact that Wegmans' eggs are Animal Care Certified, a self-monitoring program administered by United Egg Producers, an egg industry trade association. She also suggested that the activists' ultimate goal is to discredit the ACC label, a suggestion that may not be far from the truth since Compassionate Consumers and other animal advocacy groups say the label isn't substantive. The Better Business Bureau has twice ruled that egg producers should stop using the ACC labels because they are misleading, but Wegmans' egg cartons still display the logo.

Colleluori conceded that Wegmans eggs are not the most humanely produced variety available. "We feel it's important to offer our customers a choice and they have that with the various cage-free egg brands we offer in addition to our traditional eggs," she said. In a recent press release, Wegmans stated, "Eggs fill a basic need. People rely upon them as a low-cost, nutritious food. Offering choices is the best way we know to allow our customers to exercise their personal beliefs and convictions." One dozen Wegmans Grade AA Medium Eggs regularly cost less than a dollar while "cage-free" eggs usually cost more than $3.

That Wegmans' customers' checkbooks directly affect the treatment of the hens is one thing both the grocer and the activists agree on. On their Web site www.compassionateconsumers.org, the group encourages people to boycott battery cage-produced eggs. "By simply not buying eggs or only buying 'humane' eggs, you can be part of a message to the industry that customers will not support these cruel farming practices, and that they cannot continue to profit unless things change." The group also offers a guide to egg buying and sorting through common egg labels on the site.

While Wegmans seems content to let the market dictate their business practices, Eric Schneider, attorney for the Compassionate Consumers members facing charges, said he hopes they can compromise. "I don't think this {battery} cage system is consistent with Wegmans' progressive public image. I hope they can see to appropriately let the public know that they're going to use more humane methods. Currently, the type they're using is horrific. As more people learn about it, they're not going to want to buy eggs derived in this way."

Given Wegmans' reluctance to negotiate, animal rights groups in most of the regions in which Wegmans has stores are tentatively planning a day of demonstrations outside the stores on Oct. 1. Shawn DeLeo of the Syracuse-based Community Animal Project helped Compassionate Consumers spread the word about Wegmans to groups in other regions. "I think Wegmans thinks that only a few people in Rochester care about this issue," DeLeo said. "We're hoping to show them that it's much bigger than that."

--Justin Park

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