MAIN NEWS STORY / EXCLUSIVE:
"Activists take on Wegmans : Chicken-cruelty charge and video rebuffed by execs, others.
Rochester Democrat and Chronicle
(Also posted on The Insider
(July 2, 2005) — A vegetarian activist group broke into the Wegmans Egg Farm in Wayne County three times last summer and is now using video footage from the illegal nighttime visits to level charges of animal cruelty against Rochester-based Wegmans Food Markets Inc.
The company denies the charges, and promised Friday to prosecute the raiders "to the full extent of the law," said spokeswoman Jo Natale."We feel good about our egg farm," she said, calling it clean, humane and scientifically operated.
Natale added that company experts suspect that not all the footage is from the Wegmans farm.
The Rochester-based group of 20, called Compassionate Consumers, produced a 30-minute documentary, Wegmans Cruelty.
The film is based on the raids, interviews with the trespassers, comments from animal rights activists and footage of Wegmans executives.
Available free on the Internet, the film shows hens wandering over heaps of manure and the group's investigators removing corpses from wire cages and freeing injured hens whose heads, feet or wings were snagged in the wire-grid "battery" cages.
"What's going on (at the farm) is simply egregious," said Adam Durand, a Rochester packaging designer and self-described animal protectionist who was along on the raids.
"I knew the kind of suffering that was going on inside those sheds," said Durand in a letter received Friday by Wegmans executives.
The Wadsworth Road egg farm, in operation since 1968 and now the largest in New York, keeps 700,000 hens in 11 "layer houses," according to documents from the state Department of Environmental Conservation. In each house, ventilation, light, heating and cooling are controlled by computers. Employees visit each one twice a day to assure smooth operations. "We have everything to lose and nothing to gain if the birds get sick or die," said Natale.
In November, Durand and others sent raw video footage from the three raids to Wayne County District Attorney Richard Healy. He had the state police visit the facility to investigate. No charges were brought against the company.
"It's unfortunate these things happen," said Healy, acknowledging that as part of a large egg operation, some hens die, get injured or escape from their cages. "But this didn't rise to the level that they are running a bad operation there or are cruel to animals."
Wayne County prosecutes many animal cruelty cases, he said — and more each year, as the public becomes aware of it as a crime.
Investigators from his office and other law enforcement officials have an open invitation to visit the egg farm unannounced, Healy said.Regular inspections
On hand when the state police visited was Benjamin Lucio-Martinez, a Cornell University veterinarian and chicken researcher who is in charge of the university's poultry diagnostic service.
He visits the Wegmans egg farm every 8 to 11 weeks to inspect chickens being shipped to Canada for slaughter."It's among the best in the country,"
he said of the operation, run for three generations by members of the Wadsworth family. "It's a very clean operation and they follow good practices."
Chickens dying is a normal part of any egg operation, he said, with most of the affected birds succumbing to "cage layer fatigue," from the stresses of producing one egg each a day.
But bird mortality is far higher in free-range operations, said Lucio, where up to 30 percent of a flock a year can die from predator attack and disease.
At the Wegmans facility, dead birds are stacked in 55-gallon drums and placed in cold storage for weekly pickups by rendering firms.
Layer hens live about 18 months before being sold for slaughter. To assure rotating stock, the Wegmans operation keeps 250,000 pullets, or young birds, housed separately.U.S. standards
Lucio, who is not paid by Wegmans, answered the activists' other charges: Confined hens don't normally defecate on each other, he said, because conveyor belts capture the waste and the cages are staggered or have splatter shields to prevent it. And wire mesh cages stacked three or four high — a U.S. industry standard — are not cruel, said Lucio.
"It looks uncomfortable to us," he said of the footing hens must keep on wire grids. "But chickens do perfectly well with it."
Durand, who has fond memories of shopping at Wegmans as a child, said the "Animal Care Certified
" logo the company uses on its egg cartons still allows painful beak trimming, tiny cages and bird-starvation strategies used to manipulate the egg-laying cycle.
"We want to get rid of that disconnect between what people are buying at the store and what is really happening," he said.
Mitch Head, spokesman for the Atlanta-based United Egg Producers, an industry group representing 200 large U.S. operations, said its logo and certification program, started three years ago, sets voluntary industry standards for fresh food and water and the humane transport of hens.
By 2008, producers who use the logo would be required to use battery cages that are 67 square inches, up from the current 48 square inches.
The Wegmans farm has already reached that standard, said Natale.Cages banned by EU
The European Union will ban battery cages by 2012. In the United States, they are here to stay, said Lucio, but will become more spacious and better designed.
Before the certification program, "there were no regulations" said Head. "People (egg producers) could do whatever they wanted to."
The egg industry is still the only animal agriculture business with animal welfare guidelines, he said.
In 2003, the national advertising division of the Better Business Bureau criticized the Animal Care Certified logo for giving a "misimpression" that confined hens — debeaked and with no room to flap their wings — get the most humane treatment possible.
In answer, the egg industry group started a Web site with a URL that can be imprinted under the logo. "There's only so much you can say on an egg carton," said Head.
One or two large-scale U.S. egg farms are targeted each year by animal rights advocates, with the "charges getting investigated and dropped," he said. "They just use it for publicity purposes."
That misses the point, along with charges that the activists want to convert consumers to a strict vegetarian diet, said group member Jodi Chemes, a Rochester tax accountant who was not along on the raids.
Wegmans is big, nationally famous and well-run, and could use its influence to improve living conditions for the hens that provide consumers with cheap eggs, she said. "They could be a real leader. They're so good at everything else they do
In March 2004, members of Compassionate Consumers requested a visit to the farm with two letters, but were rebuffed.
They conducted two raids on the farm in May and one in July 2004.
In the month between, Durand called Natale to inquire about conditions in the farm and recorded the conversation. It was later — to Natale's surprise — incorporated into the film, along with public-access footage of Bob and Danny Wegman.
"I cannot tell you enough how upset we are," said Natale, adding that security has been tightened at the fenced facility.She worried the emotional content of the film would overwhelm the science of the Wayne County operation and its good reputation within the industry.
As for visits to the farm, she said, they are so limited and rare that not even company executives have been there.
Egg producers in general fear that outsiders without the proper protective clothing or hygiene procedures would bring in diseases potent enough to kill the whole flock, especially avian influenza.
The egg farm, which includes about 2,000 acres used to grow feed and to compost animal wastes, was the subject of controversy a decade ago.
A number of neighbors sued Wegmans in 1995, complaining of intense odors, clouds of flies, aerial pesticide spraying and water pollution from manure runoff. The suit was settled privately less than a year later for an undisclosed sum.