Maine egg farm works to improve chicken conditions following flap over undercover video
TURNER, Maine — New England's largest egg farm has weathered neighbors' complaints about the stench and allegations of atrocious working conditions. Now it's eager to show it's taking good care of its hens after paying a fine to settle allegations its birds were mistreated.
Maine Contract Farming agreed last month in state court to pay $25,000 in penalties and to make a one-time payment of $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture over animal cruelty allegations that were spurred by a hidden-camera investigation by an animal welfare organization.
Maine Contract Farming raises the hens for Quality Egg of New England. All told, there are about 5 million hens on the Turner site, formerly known as DeCoster Egg Farm.
So far, the egg farm has spent $700,000 on improvements, consultants and training for workers, Quality Egg owner John Glessner said. The farm is also inviting neighbors onto the farm this fall for a picnic and open house in an attempt to let members of the public see for themselves the improvements.
"There's a history there. I guess we can't ignore it. We've just got to educate people and move forward," Glessner said Thursday from the company's headquarters.
On Thursday, there were no foul odors emanating from any of the 76 barns, where the hens produce 3.5 million eggs a day. In the oldest of the buildings, built by Jack DeCoster in 1967, the hens in cages appeared healthy. There were four hens in each cage, giving each about 67 square inches of space.
The birds eat from automated feeders, and their droppings are cleared away by machinery.
Likewise, their eggs are collected in chutes and removed on conveyors to one of eight processing plants where automated equipment washes, scrubs and sanitizes them before weighing and sorting them. The eggs are packaged and placed in refrigerators within 16 hours of the egg being laid in the barn next door.
This farm that seemed so tranquil on a cool summer day is the same farm that was investigated by the state for denying access to teachers, social workers and doctors, and was fined $3.6 million by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration over workplace conditions in 1996.
Labor Secretary Robert Reich described it as an "agricultural sweatshop" and used words like "atrocious" and "deplorable" to describe the working conditions and housing.
The latest flap was generated when Ohio-based Mercy for Animals released video shot inside the farm that documented workers swinging hens by their necks; sick and injured hens in cramped cages; and decomposing carcasses and rotting eggs in cages alongside healthy hens.
The farm has hired consultants who were brought on board to make recommendations to ensure birds' health. What's good for the birds is good for the bottom line, they said, because maintaining biosecurity and keeping birds healthy makes sound business sense.
Don Hoenig, Maine state veterinarian, likes what he's seen in the year since the animal welfare group released its video and state agents raided the farm.
"They have made significant progress over the past year, and we've been monitoring that progress on a regular basis with visits to inspect the chicken barns and to make sure they're meeting their best management practices and complying with our animal welfare laws," he said.
Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, said things are improving at the Maine farm, but he won't rest until battery cages are eliminated altogether.
"We hope that Quality Egg will be a true leader in the industry by phasing out these cruel and restrictive cages where birds are unable to spread their wings, walk or engage in natural behavior, and that they'll move toward cage-free systems," he said.
RELATED FARM ANIMAL NEWS:
Ohio dairy farmworker charged with animal cruelty after advocacy group releases undercover video
Egg-farm video is latest salvo in Humane Society's campaign (April 2010 story by P.J. Huffstutter)
-- David Sharp, Associated Press
Photo: Chickens in a cage at Maine Contract Farming on July 1. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty / Associated Press