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.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

When Will There Be Stories Like this about Wegmans Egg Farm?


Animal cruelty charges come home to roost

Activists’ focus on Esbenshade Farms might signal more trouble for local egg industry.

By Gil Smart, Lancaster Online

Sunday News

Published: Aug 12, 2006 11:34 PM EST

LANCASTER COUNTY, PA - The bird in the video is gray and decomposing, having been stepped on and perhaps defecated upon by the other snow-white chickens that mill about inside the wire cage.A gloved hand reaches in and pulls the carcass out, turning it slowly that the camera might see, ultimately, that the world might see.

The footage, shot by John Brothers, an animal-rights advocate with the Washington D.C.-based group Compassion Over Killing, was the key piece of evidence in the cruelty case against officials with Esbenshade Farms in Mount Joy that went before Elizabethtown Magisterial District Judge Jayne F. Duncan last week.

Esbenshade Farms chief executive officer H. Glenn Esbenshade and farm manager Jay Musser each faced 35 counts of animal cruelty; one charge against each was thrown out, and after five hours of testimony Aug. 7, attorneys for both sides appeared to be working on a settlement.

Yet whatever happens, Compassion Over Killing and the Humane Society of the United States, which helped fund the case, are likely to declare victory.

For while their immediate goal was to force Esbenshade to clean up its chicken houses, the case was also part of a broader campaign against what animal-rights activists believe are inhumane conditions in the egg industry as a whole. And on that count, last week’s case was a success. The Associated Press covered the proceedings, and traffic increased on Compassion Over Killing’s Web site, where Brothers’ video is posted.

This means that even once the case is resolved, the local egg industry’s headaches might be only beginning.

To be sure, animal-rights groups have long waged war against the egg industry. But Lancaster County has never been targeted as specifically as it has been the past few years. In part it might have been inevitable, as this is the top egg-producing county in Pennsylvania, itself one of the top egg-producing states.

All of the attention, initially, took industry leaders by surprise. But they’ve begun to push back, waging a campaign against "agricultural terrorism," and considering ways they might educate the public about standard farming practices that might seem strange to consumers who never really have thought about where their eggs come from.

"Advanced agriculture has been one of the key growth factors in Lancaster County’s agricultural economy," said Jim Adams, chief operating officer of Wenger Feed Mill.

"If we had to sprinkle corn on the ground for 200,000 birds, we’d never get the job done."

From dogs to hens

Blame it, maybe, on puppy mills.

The long-running, high-profile campaign against the dog breeding industry has borne some large fruit lately, with Gov. Ed Rendell vowing to toughen the state’s dog laws. The move was prompted, in part, by sustained pressure from animal activists, including a Philadelphia-based group that erected billboards on the Pennsylvania Turnpike urging consumers not to do business in Lancaster County, "home of 100s of puppy mills."

What works for dogs, some think, may work for chickens, too. Animal activists have long been concerned about the plight of chickens used in the egg industry. The New York Times profiled Compassion Over Killing in a lengthy 2002 article: "This is the next anti-oppression movement," one member told the Times after a "raid" on a Maryland farm during which the group entered chicken sheds and stole several sick and dying birds.

There are crucial differences between the way Pennsylvania regulates the treatment of dogs and chickens. The former have a whole series of laws specifically devoted to the manner in which dogs are bred and kept. The treatment of chickens, however, is regulated only by Pennsylvania’s cruelty statute, which states that anyone who "wantonly or cruelly illtreats" or otherwise abuses, neglects or abandons any animal is breaking the law but even this "shall not apply to activity undertaken in normal agricultural operation."

As a result, said Mike Winters, the Lancaster attorney who defended Esbenshade Farms and has defended dog breeders in the past, "everyone has a different perspective on what abuse is."

Beyond that, animal-rights groups targeting the egg industry, or other animal-intensive agricultural industries, actually have a potent weapon that puppy mill opponents don’t. While foes of dog breeders must rely on the state’s Bureau of Dog Law to police kennels, those targeting the egg industry can bring alleged violations to the attention of local Humane Society police officers, who have the authority to bring charges in court.

That’s exactly what happened in the Esbenshade case, after Brothers showed his footage to Humane Society police Officer Johnna Seeton. Seeton told the Philadelphia Inquirer in January that the conditions shown in Brothers’ video were "very, very bad"; Dr. Ian Duncan, a Canadian professor and renowned expert on animal welfare, said he’d never seen conditions as bad as those shown in the Esbenshade video.

The Humane Society of the United States has called the case groundbreaking, the first time that an American egg producer has been charged with cruelty over hens’ normal living conditions.

Winters said the involvement of the Humane Society itself is unique, in that the group "has essentially bankrolled the prosecution," retaining the attorney who is prosecuting the case because the Lancaster County District Attorney’s office does not handle animal cruelty cases.

When the Humane Society and other national organizations sitting on millions start coming after egg producers, he said, the game is on.

And not just at Esbenshade Farms. Last year, Philadelphia-based Hugs for Puppies began targeting Kreider Farms, a Manheim egg production company that also operates a dairy farm and several restaurants. The group decided to go after Kreider Farms not because conditions for hens were any worse than is normal in the industry, but simply because Kreider Farms is one of Pennsylvania’s largest egg producers and the group considers those industry norms to be repulsive.

People "have this image in their mind of Farmer Brown raising chickens in his backyard, and that’s just not the case anymore," said Nick Cooney, director of Hugs for Puppies. But this is factory farming, he said, complete with hundreds of thousands of birds jammed into small chicken houses, housed in wire "battery" cages that often don’t even provide enough room for the fowl to turn around.

The European Union has begun to phase out "battery" cages; activists want U.S. producers to do the same.

In November 2004 and September 2005, members of Hugs for Puppies shot videotape inside several Kreider Farms chicken houses; felony charges were brought against two members of the group, but in April, Christopher Price, 25, of Philadelphia pleaded guilty to one misdemeanor count of criminal trespass, agreeing to pay $582 in fines and court costs.

At the conclusion of his case, Price referenced the Esbenshade case, noting that there is more than one way to skin a cat, or a chicken: "As proven by the Esbenshade case, there are other ways to get the word out without breaking the law," he said.

The clear implication being that there will be more "investigations" to come.

"The industry tries hard to keep hidden what happens inside those facilities," said Erica Meier, Compassion Over Killing’s executive director. The "undercover" video and high-profile court cases ultimately "encourage people to make more humane choices."

What next?

The industry suspects animal-rights groups are more interested in shutting them down entirely.

"Short of getting out of business, we’re never going to be able to satisfy them," said Chris Herr, vice president of PennAg Industries, an agricultural trade association in Harrisburg.

And so the pushback has begun. In April, the Lancaster County Chamber of Commerce & Industry hosted a forum on "agricultural terrorism," to warn the industry of "those who engage in criminal acts in the name of animal rights," said FBI agent Joseph Metzinger.

But the egg industry is also beginning to reach out to the public and public officials, in order to explain the normal business practices utilized by large egg producers.

There is, said Wenger Feed Mill’s Jim Adams, a reason for the measures. "They make the food process wholesome, and the eggs can be gathered with a reasonable amount of labor," he said.

"For a lot of people, efficiency and profit are dirty words. But that’s what makes the world go 'round."

At the same time, though, the industry is willing to review its standard practices, tweak them where possible or necessary.

"No responsible people in agriculture will defend animal abuse," said Gary Willier, agriculture services manager for The Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry. "And there’s probably no one more concerned with animal welfare than the farmers who make their living" from animals.

"But at the same time, everyone has a right to choose whatever food they want. ... Our society is at a point where we have the time and money to look at alternative sources of raising food. And if people are willing to pay more for food they know has been raised in a manner they consider humane, that’s an evolution of the food chain.

"It doesn’t mean it's wrong to keep [chickens] in battery cages. It just means it’s wrong for you."

© 2004-2006 Lancaster Newspapers

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