FRESNO, California––Which came first, the American Humane Association and Humane Society of the U.S. courting dances with hen and egg producers, or egg on the faces of spokespersons trying to explain the chicken poop outcomes?
Frequently bitter rivals since 1954, when former American Humane Association publicist Fred Myers left the AHA to found HSUS, the AHA and HSUS have in recent years each hit the other repeatedly with figurative volleys of rotten eggs––but HSUS in June 2015 appeared to score the most reeking hits yet, amplifying a series of undercover video exposés of alleged cruelty at Foster Farms and Hillandale Farms facilities that have qualified for the AHA “Humane Heartland” label.
Foster Farms fiasco
Five Foster Farms staff were suspended on June 17, 2015 after Mercy for Animals, an independent animal charity often aligned with HSUS, released undercover video from a Foster Farms poultry slaughterhouse in Fresno, California, and from three poultry farms in Fresno County. The video included images recorded at various times between April and early June 2015.
The Mercy for Animals video was narrated by retired TV game show host Bob Barker, a vehement critic of the AHA role in monitoring screen productions since controversy emerged over the treatment of chimpanzees in making the 1987 film Project X, starring Matthew Broderick.
“We can’t show you the worst of it,” reported Gene Haagenson of KSFN-Fresno, “but Mercy for Animals spokesman Matt Rice describes what it reveals: ‘Many Foster Farms workers engaged in deliberate and intentional acts of malicious cruelty, punching, beating chickens as well as ripping out their feathers.’ The animal cruelty charges have been turned over to the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office.”
Added Associated Press, “It also shows what Mercy for Animals said are the bodies of chickens that were boiled alive after missing an automatic knife that’s supposed to slit their necks.”
Said the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office in a terse prepared statement, “The Fresno County Sheriff’s Office is aware of the allegations Mercy for Animals is making against Foster Farms and we are looking into the matter. The investigation is ongoing and detectives do not have any specific details to release at this time.”
The five suspended Foster Farms employees “were either directly involved in the abuse or failed to report it to management,” Associated Press said, based on a statement issued through a public relations firm hired by Foster Farms.
Acknowledged Foster Farms, “The behavior of the individuals in this video is inappropriate and counter to our stringent animal welfare standards, procedures and policies. We are fully investigating and cooperating with the authorities. Any employee willfully violating Foster Farms’ animal welfare policies and procedures is subject to disciplinary action up to and including dismissal.”
“Humane Heartland little more than scam”
But Mercy for Animals founder Nathan Runkle was unconvinced. “The [AHA] Humane Heartland label is little more than a scam. It dupes well-intending consumers into buying meat from factory farmed animals,” Runkle charged.
“Citing public concern for animal welfare,” Mercy for Animals elaborated in a prepared statement, “the American Humane Association created a certification program in the year 2000 that was meant to assure consumers that animals at certified facilities were treated humanely. Unfortunately, AHA standards fall far below those of virtually every other humane certification program, and barely exceed even the minimal standards set by the factory farming industry itself. The AHA program, which covers more than one billion animals in the U.S., is nothing more than a rubber stamp for some of the cruelest factory farms,” Mercy for Animals alleged, “including Butterball, Weaver Brothers, Burnbrae Farms, Rose Acre Farms, Cal-Maine, Eggland’s Best, and Hillandale Farms. Many of these AHA-certified companies have been caught on hidden camera abusing animals.
“AHA certified producers are permitted to cram tens of thousands of birds inside dark, windowless sheds, with no access to sunlight or outdoor space for their entire lives,” Mercy for Animals continued. “AHA standards allow factory farms to mutilate animals without painkillers, including burning off the tips of birds’ sensitive beaks. Despite endorsing less cruel [slaughtering] systems in 2010, AHA also continues to allow producers to slaughter chickens using outdated systems that dump, shackle, shock, and slit the throats of conscious animals. Birds subjected to such killing systems routinely endure physical violence from workers who throw, kick, and punch them.”
Foster Farms, Mercy for Animals recounted, won AHA certification in 2013, “at the start of the largest salmonella outbreak from chicken in history,” which “hospitalized hundreds of people in 29 states and was linked to Foster Farms chicken.”
American Humane responds
Responded AHA spokesperson Mark Stubis, to ANIMALS 24-7, “We were made aware of a video that shows inhumane treatment of animals at Foster Farms facilities. As an organization that exists to protect animals, abuse in any form is intolerable and unacceptable. We hope that the individuals involved are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”
Stubis called the Mercy for Animals video “surprising, as Foster Farms has worked hard to create a culture of humane treatment. In fact, they have never failed an audit in the three years we have been working with them,” but Stubis did not mention that Foster Farms facilities in Merced County, California, were the subject of similar allegations from Christine Morrissey of East Bay Animal Advocates in 2005.
“EBAA investigators rescued 39 sick and injured chickens,” Morrissey said at the time. “Following the investigative rescue, EBAA filed an animal cruelty complaint with Merced County Animal Control,” but the complaint apparently did not result in any law enforcement action.
Continued Stubis, “We will work with the producer to make sure corrective actions are taken so this doesn’t happen again. Foster Farms is already planning on retraining workers on the live hang line and those working with chicks.”
Stubis mentioned that the AHA farm product certification program “was the first independent, third-party farm animal welfare program in the country,” but did not acknowledge that founder Adele Douglass left the AHA two years later under pressure to weaken the original AHA standards, and formed Humane Farm Animal Care to uphold those standards.
The Humane Farm Animal Care “Certified Humane” logo, endorsed by nearly 70 other humane organizations, may now be the best-recognized of many farm product certification logos currently competing for market share.
The AHA Humane Heartland program certifies producers with cumulatively more market share, but keyword searches by ANIMALS 24-7 indicates that it has less than 8.5% as much name recognition.
Hillandale & Costco
Almost simultaneous with the release of Mercy for Animals exposé of Foster Farms, HSUS president Wayne Pacelle and vice president for farm animal protection Paul Shapiro released video showing what Pacelle called “repugnant treatment of hens at a major egg supplier to Costco—the nation’s second-largest grocery retailer. At the factory farm in question,” Pacelle said, “a notorious egg producer called Hillandale, which was previously implicated in 2010 in the biggest egg recall in American history centered in Iowa — our investigator found heart-wrenching problems, this time at Hillandale’s facilities in Pennsylvania. Our new investigation found birds confined in cages, packed so tightly they basically lived on top of each other; live birds locked in cages with the mummified corpses of their cage-mates; hens’ wings, legs, and necks trapped in the corroded wires of their battery cages; and rotting, broken, fly-covered eggs, along with dead birds, littering the facility’s floor.
“The eggs from this facility,” Pacelle continued, “are sold at some Costco stores under the brand name ‘Nearby Eggs,’ in packages depicting a cartoon image of hens roaming free in a pasture outside a picturesque red barn—a visual that couldn’t be further removed from reality.”
Hillandale was formerly under the control of Austin “Jack’ DeCoster, who in April 2015 was sentenced to serve three months in prison for selling salmonella-tainted eggs.
(See http://www.animals24-7.org/2015/04/14/factory-farmer-austin-jack-decoster-sentenced-to-prison-but-will-he-really-do-time/)DeCoster is at least nominally no longer involved, but Hillandale “has even been working over the last two years to open up a conventional battery cage facility in Ohio and subvert an agreement reached between HSUS and farm groups that forbids that very thing,” Pacelle charged.
“Most important to this controversy,” Pacelle added, “is that Costco in 2007 publicly indicated its commitment to a goal of selling cage-free eggs only. We understand that companies need time to make major changes, but it’s been nearly a decade and Costco still doesn’t even have a timeline for accomplishing that transition.”
Costco was previously embarrassed after the Wisconsin-based Cornucopia Institute in December 2014 “released aerial photos of 14 large-scale organic farms––five dairies and nine chicken operations that supply well-known store brands such as Walmart, Target and Costco––taken in May and June 2014––that show very few animals outside, even though organic rules require that animals be allowed daily free access to the outdoors,” summarized Peter Whoriskey of the Washington Post.
The Cornucopia Institute complained to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that the 14 farms were in violation of the somewhat vague USDA standard for “organic” labeling.
Said Cornucopia Institute cofounder Mark Kastel, “If you showed these pictures to people buying milk and eggs at Whole Foods, they’d be appalled.”
AHA undercut California Prop 2
While the Humane Society of the U.S. seems to have the upper perch in the pecking order at the moment, HSUS was repeatedly embarrassed and frustrated by actions of the American Humane Association after HSUS and Farm Sanctuary in 2008 pushed to passage California Proposition 2, a ballot initiative that they billed as requiring that egg-laying hens would have to be kept in cage-free environments after 2015.
To avoid putting California egg producers at a competitive disadvantage, the California State Assembly reinforced Proposition 2 in 2010 by requiring egg producers in other states to meet the Proposition 2 standards in order to sell eggs in California.
But the American Humane Association in June 2010 undercut the stated intent of Proposition 2 by cutting a deal with the egg producer J.S. West, of Modesto, California, which held that the initiative language prohibiting battery caging would be interpreted––at least by the AHA––to allow the use of “enriched” cages like those required by the European Union since January 1, 2012.
With the endorsement of “enriched” cages by the oldest U.S. national humane organization in hand, the California egg industry was well positioned to fight any attempt by HSUS and Farm Sanctuary to enforce a cage-free standard through the courts.
HSUS cut deal with United Egg Producers
Despite the California setback, HSUS led campaigns to pass ballot initiatives against battery caging in Oregon and Washington. The egg industry, however, backed by endorsements of “enriched” cages from both the AHA and the Oregon Humane Society, pushed bills through the Oregon and Washington legislatures which leave laying hens in conventional battery cages until 2026, after which “enriched” caging must be used.
Out-maneuvered, HSUS in July 2011 withdrew the Oregon and Washington initiative petitions as part of a deal with United Egg Producers to pursue passage of a proposed federal bill setting cage standards for the laying hen industry. In exchange for UEP cooperation in seeking the federal standards, HSUS agreed to suspend doing undercover investigations of egg farms.
Three years of lobbying effort failed to advance the proposed federal bill, however, leaving HSUS with nothing of value from the agreement.
The AHA meanwhile had further romanced the poultry industry in September 2010 by endorsing what it termed “a new method of controlled-atmosphere stunning for poultry called Low Atmospheric Pressure System,” LAPS for short.
LAPS is in essence decompression, a killing method not approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association. Though LAPS may be more efficient and humane for poultry slaughtering than the present method of stunning birds by shackling them upside down and dragging their heads through an electrified tank of water before decapitation, LAPS is emphatically not the controlled-atmosphere method promoted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and widely used in Europe, which involves stunning poultry with carbon dioxide or argon gas.
Of relevance is that the AHA promoted decompression for killing dogs and cats at animal shelters for at least 30 years, beginning in 1950, and quietly dropped endorsement of it only after it was already opposed as unacceptably inhumane by almost every other national animal advocacy organization. Houston and Austin in 1985 became the last U.S. cities to dismantle their decompression chambers.
But while the AHA recommends decompression using the LAPS system for killing chickens, the AHA does not require LAPS for Humane Heartland certification, as Mercy for Animals pointed out in disclosing the Foster Farms video. Neither does the AHA require much of anything else that the poultry industry itself does not already widely practice.
Race to the bottom
Indeed, a case can be made that the AHA has “won” a race to the bottom that began in 1996, when the Royal SPCA of Great Britain introduced the first humane certification program for farmed animal products and byproducts, emulated by the original AHA program in 2000.
By 2007, “One in 20 farm animals in Britain was reared under the Freedom Food scheme,” according to Guardian consumer affairs correspondent Rebecca Smithers, but participating farms often went a year or more between inspections.
In consequence, Freedom Food was afflicted by one scandal after another. In November 2006, for example, three employees of a major egg company were arrested for allegedly mislabeling eggs from battery caged hens as “free-range.” In March 13, 2007, the ITV program Tonight with Trevor McDonald aired videotape of abuse and neglect at Freedom Food-certified turkey and duck farms.
In addition, campaigns consultant John Robins of the Scots organization Animal Concerns has pointed out often since 2008 that Freedom Food continues to endorse farmed salmon from offshore pens whose personnel shoot marauding seals.
Freedom Food grew anyhow
The egg mislabeling scandal in particular undercut the Freedom Food premise that the RSPCA could monitor agribusiness closely enough to prevent bogus claims from eroding humane standards. Millions of falsely labeled “free range” eggs from “free range” farms that never existed were marketed for years all over Britain, in direct competition with Freedom Food eggs, apparently without the Freedom Food inspectors ever suspecting anything was amiss.
When the fraud was detected, it was revealed by inside whistleblowers using routine ultraviolet light “candling,” or egg-sorting, which showed the grid pattern of the cages on the eggs’ shells.
Despite the setbacks, the Freedom Food program has rapidly expanded in recent years, now certifying that more than 50% of the animals raised for eggs, meat, or milk in the United Kingdom have been raised under humane conditions. In mid-2014 it was rebranded as “RSPCA Assured.”
“Sanitizing death on an industrial scale”
Some skeptical RSPCA insiders have disputed that the certification program really certifies much.
“The RSPCA has no business sanitizing death on an industrial scale,” RSPCA ruling council member Irene Barker reportedly said at the June 2013 RSPCA annual meeting. “Let’s not in the name of compassion and logic deodorize agribusiness by claiming that Freedom Food in any way changes that dark truth.”
But a vegan slate seeking to separate the RSPCA from Freedom Food lost momentum in the 2014 RSPCA ruling council election.
(See http://www.animals24-7.org/2014/06/01/rspca-ruling-council-vote-seen-as-critical-to-future-of-the-charity/ and http://www.animals24-7.org/2014/06/05/did-holocaust-comparison-cost-vegan-her-rspca-ruling-council-seat/.)
“Animal Welfare Approved”
Ironically, the “race to the bottom” for U.S. farm animal welfare standards accelerated after the Animal Welfare Institute in 2003 sought to raise the ante by promoting an “Animal Welfare Approved” label with standards that exclude any corporate-owned farm––which thereby categorically excludes almost every major producer.
That left a considerable marketing niche for the Humane Farm Animal Care program, whose “Certified Humane” label requires producers to meet comparable animal care standards, and is structured to appeal to producers in the wide no-man’s-land between the present diluted AHA standards and those of “Animal Welfare Approved.”
Agribusiness organizations responded to “Certified Humane” and “Animal Welfare Approved” by advancing nearly two dozen labeling schemes of their own. The most prominent is probably that of United Egg Producers.
Compassion Over Killing, founded by Miyun Park, who later headed the Global Animal Partnership certification scheme, and Paul Shapiro, with HSUS since 2005, between 2003 and 2008 won a string of Better Business Bureau and Federal Trade Commission rulings that the original UEP label claims were misleading to consumers.
In a case comparable to both the 2006 British egg mislabeling scandal and the Compassion Over Killing cases against the UEP, also having implications for U.S. farm animal product certification programs, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in September 2014 won a fine of $300,000 from Pirovic Enterprises, of New South Wales, for marketing “Pirovic free range eggs”.
Summarized Australian Associated Press, “Justice Geoffrey Flick found the company’s packaging and advertising would have left most shoppers believing the eggs were produced by laying hens who were usually able to move around freely on an open range.”
To the contrary, Flick found, “The stocking densities and flock sizes in Pirovic’s barns, and the number, size, placement and operation of the physical openings to the open range, meant that most of the laying hens did not move about freely on an open range on most ordinary days.
“In the past six years,” Australian Associated Press added, “the market share of free-range eggs has leaped from 27% to nearly 40%,” according to Australian Egg Corporation data, even though the price of free-range eggs is 60% higher than that of cage-produced eggs.
The Pirovic case illustrates most significantly the profit potential in proclaiming standards that mislead farm animal product consumers.
The “race to the bottom” in setting U.S. farm animal welfare standards gained momentum to the point of becoming almost a movement in itself after several major animal charities in 2010 linked their names and reputations to a new set of standards introduced by the Global Animal Partnership, a project of the Animal Compassion Foundation.
Animal Compassion Foundation founder John Mackey was also founder of Whole Foods Markets. The GAP program evolved out of Whole Foods Markets’ own certification program, which had proved to be profitable for Whole Foods Markets, but was not structured to expand beyond the Whole Foods Markets supply chain.
Among the GAP backers were the Humane Society of the U.S., People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which otherwise promotes veganism, and the British charity Compassion In World Farming.
CIWF endorsed GAP even though the lowest two of five GAP certification tiers fell short of meeting the RSPCA “Red Tractor” standards, which had already been widely criticized as being too lax and poorly enforced.
Whole Foods supplier
Whether either GAP or Whole Foods Markets certification can be trusted any more than any other program closely associated with agribusiness was called into question in October 2013 by video obtained by a Compassion Over Killing undercover investigator at the Bell & Evans chicken hatchery in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania.
A longtime supplier to Whole Foods Markets, “Bell & Evans has long presented itself as a pioneer in the natural and organic foods movement and says it raises its chickens on a vegetarian diet free of antibiotics,” observed Philadelphia Inquirer staff writer Allison Steele. “In 2010, Bell & Evans became one of two premium chicken producers in the country to start rendering chickens unconscious with carbon dioxide gas before killing them, lessening the animals’ pain.”
Bell & Evens advertisements asserted that “all of our chickens are humanely raised and compassionately handled, in a minimal-stress environment, throughout their lives,” claiming that newly hatched chicks are “carefully sorted from their shells, and placed in protective delivery baskets headed for the farm.”
But the Compassion Over Killing video showed chicks being dropped on conveyor belts. Injured chicks were fed into a grinder.
AHA president’s view
American Humane Association president Robin Ganzert nonetheless offered the Whole Foods Market certification scheme as the “gold standard” in a June 17, 2015 defense of the “Humane Heartland” scheme.
Said Ganzert, “Whole Foods Market has an animal-welfare system for its producers, but Whole Foods also knows that its customers have higher incomes. They can afford to shop from niche farming systems that frankly couldn’t be replicated on a scale to feed our entire country. In contrast, a broader system must cater to all Americans across income levels.”
United Poultry Concerns
Responded United Poultry Concerns founder Karen Davis, “The poultry and egg industry has no compassion for the chickens so there is no ethical incentive” for producers to effectively address animal welfare issues, instead of continually seeking to evade or dilute standards.
“Despite powerful investigative exposures by Mercy for Animals, Compassion Over Killing, HSUS and Compassion In World Farming in recent years,” Davis told ANIMALS 24-7, “neither the chicken industry nor the egg industry is experiencing any significant economic repercussions. All of the industry material that I read boasts of expanding global markets, increased sales, etc. They have no incentive to change because they are not experiencing consumer downside as a result of the revelations.”
Indeed, after a 40-year decline from eating more than 300 eggs per year, U.S. per capita egg consumption bottomed out at 249.3 in 2010 and rebounded to 259.8 in 2014.
“It doesn’t help that the American Humane Association puts its seal of approval on companies like Foster Farms and Butterball,” Davis continued.
“Finally, a commercial slaughter plant can never, ever be made to observe ‘humane standards,’ and the term ‘humane’ is inappropriate regardless when a creature is hung upside down, run through paralytic electrified water, partially butchered, and kept alive with a beating heart before being thrown into a scald tank dead or alive. The culture of these places is merciless cruelty,” Davis charged, “and such cultures reflect, embody and invite the most savage human impulses. The workers hate the birds and will never stop punishing them as long as people are eating them and their eggs.”
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