Cage-free complex has been much praised by animal advocates
BLOOMFIELD, Nebraska––If anyone imagined that going cage-free would substantively change the egg industry, the headlines alone reporting a February 27, 2020 barn fire at a Michael Foods cage-free complex in Knox County, Nebraska should explode that illusion.
The Michael Foods fire killed as many as 400,000 of the approximately four million hens at the site, making it the deadliest barn fire in the U.S., at least, since a Moark Hatcheries fire killed an estimated half million hens and chicks on May 1, 2012 in Weld County, Colorado.
“Ain’t nobody here but us chickens”
But bannered KTIV reporter Dean Welte from Sioux City, Iowa, oblivious to the animal suffering involved, “No one hurt in structure fire at Michael Foods in Knox County, Nebraska.”
“No one” meant only the 125 to 150 Michael Foods employees at the complex, most of whom had already ended their working day before the fire was reported at about 5:30 p.m.
Opened Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan reporter Randy Dockendorf, “No fatalities or injuries occurred in Thursday night’s fire at the Michael Foods poultry plant, but company officials said the blaze’s damage and other losses surpassed $2.5 million.”
Dockendorf took his cue from Post Holdings, “the company owning Michael Foods,” he mentioned, which “issued a news release on its website describing the fire’s impact,” beneath a headline reading “Post Holdings Reports Fire With No Injuries at Michael Foods Location.”
18 words on hens, plus 750-word accounting statement
Said Post Holdings on behalf of Michael Foods, which claims to be the world’s largest producer of “processed eggs,” and the world’s largest cage-free egg supplier, “All employees were safely evacuated, and no injuries were reported.
“The fire impacted less than 5% of the layer population of Michael Foods’ internal and external layer network,” Post Holdings said.
That would be about 13.3 million hens in all, of whom 5% would be 665,000.
Beyond that, the Post Holdings media release made no mention of the hens who burned alive or died from smoke inhalation, but devoted 750 words to accounting issues pertaining to estimated monetary losses.
Nebraska state senator Tim Gragert did mention the hen casualties to Dockendorf.
“This was one of the new buildings”
“This was one of the new buildings that went from housing caged chickens to cage-free chickens,” Gragert said.
Then-Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle and director of farmed animal campaigns Paul Shapiro, who both departed in early 2018, rejoiced in 2016 when Michael Foods announced it would convert the 20-barn egg-laying complex in Knox County, Nebraska, near Bloomfield, to a cage-free modus operandi, with a 2020 estimated date of completion.
Having repeatedly been embarrassed by undercover investigations of conventional laying hen barns, Michael Foods reportedly invested $150 million in renovations and new construction to achieve the transition to cage-free.
The Pacelle and Shapiro announcements were among the first of what is now a long string of “victory” proclamations by animal advocacy organizations, who have waged a decades-long struggle to persuade the egg industry to give each laying hen even as much standing room as a standard sheet of paper.
Exulted David Coman-Hidy, president of The Humane League, in a January 12, 2020 guest column for the online periodical Truthout, “Between 2014 and 2016, nearly every major U.S. restaurant chain, retailer, food manufacturer, and food service company made a public commitment to their customers and stakeholders to phase out the use of caged-eggs in their supply chains. To date, over 400 companies have committed to sourcing 100% cage-free eggs by 2026, or earlier.”
“Cage-free” still far short of offering the Five Freedoms
Current Humane Society of the U.S. president Kitty Block, on December 2, 2019, and the online periodical Sentient Media, on February 12, 2020, also lauded the trend toward “cage-free,” with scant notice of the reality that going “cage-free” is only the beginning of doing all that would be necessary to bring the egg industry into compliance with even the minimal requirements of the “Five Freedoms” defined in 1979 by the United Kingdom Farm Animal Welfare Council:
• Freedom from Hunger and Thirst.
• Freedom from Discomfort.
• Freedom from Pain, Injury or Disease.
• Freedom to Express Normal Behavior.
• Freedom from Fear and Distress.
“Cage-free,” though it allows hens much more freedom of movement and opportunity to socialize with others than conventional caging, does not actually reduce crowding much at typical egg barn stocking densities.
Culling, fumes, fans, & the fire
The hatcheries supplying “cage-free” laying hen operations cull male chicks in the same manner as hatcheries supplying conventional egg farms.
Neither does “cage-free” housing do anything beyond the usual to reduce the ammonia fumes and haze of manure dusts that are a routine feature of factory farms.
Holding down ammonia fumes and manure dust is why the Michael Foods barn that burned, like all factory poultry barns, had giant fans running even on a day when the high temperature, according to AccuWeather, was 37 degrees Fahrenheit, with a low of 19 degrees Fahrenheit, well below freezing.
Wrote Dockendorf, “While the official cause of the fire remained unknown, Gragert was told by a firefighter that one of the plastic covers on a fan may have started to melt and led to the fire.”
The Michael Foods fire was the third to hit a nationally noted cage-free egg barn, following a January 3, 2020 fire that killed about 300,000 chickens at Konos Vande Bunte Eggs, near Otsego, Michigan, and a predawn fire that on July 28, 2014 killed 65,000 hens at an Egg Innovations barn in Kosciusko County, Indiana.
Blogged Ari Solomon of Mercy for Animals a few days afterward, “Though Egg Innovations bills itself as a ‘free range’ and ‘certified humane’ facility, this tragedy sheds light on the deceptiveness of labeling and just one of the many dangers chickens face when exploited for their eggs on commercial farms.”
Egg Innovations, descended from an egg farm founded by Herbert Brunnquell in Ozaukee County, Wisconsin, in 1917, had recently emerged as a trend-setter in cage-free egg production.
Egg Innovations in 2000 became the first egg producer certified by the Free Farmed program formerly operated under the auspices of the American Humane Association, later replaced by the current AHA Humane Heartland program.
After Free Farmed founder Adele Douglas left the American Humane Association at the end of 2002 to found Humane Farm Animal Care, with more stringent standards than those of Humane Heartland, Egg Innovations become one of the first producers to qualify for the HFAC Certified Humane logo.
Michael Foods appears to be certified only by the American Humane Association Humane Heartland program.
Nurtured by people who care?
Claims the “Animal Well-Being” page on the Michael Foods web site, “You can feel good knowing that the laying hens that make it all possible are nurtured by people who care.”
This, however, would be more plausible if laying hen suffering on a near-record scale in a catastrophic barn fire rated more concern in the Post Holdings media release than a 750-word accounting statement beneath a headline asserting “no injuries.”