Building barn that burned was praised as “victory” by then-Humane Society of U.S. brass
BLOOMFIELD, Nebraska––A February 27, 2020 barn fire that killed 400,000 hens is now the subject of a $25 million lawsuit filed by the Rhode Island-based Factory Mutual Insurance Company against the barn builder, Henning Companies LLC of Johnston, Iowa.
ANIMALS 24-7 on March 1, 2020 spotlighted the owners’ response to the fire for exemplifying extreme management indifference to the suffering of animals involved in factory farming.
Built in 2017 for the M.G. Waldbaum Company, the “cage-free” barn was operated by Michael Foods, a subsidiary.
Then-Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle and director of farmed animal campaigns Paul Shapiro, who departed amid sexual harassment allegations in early 2018 and late 2017, respectively, rejoiced when Michael Foods announced it would convert the 12-barn egg-laying complex in Knox County, Nebraska, to a cage-free modus operandi.
Shapiro in a December 4, 2015 blog post called the Michael Foods decision part of “an avalanche of progress.”
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.
Manure blower fan ignited chicken feed dust
Wrote Lincoln Journal Star reporter Lori Pilger, quoting Factory Mutual attorney Daniel Bergland, the fire “erupted in the northeast portion of the upper floor of the recently constructed facility. A manure blower fan assembly ignited chicken feed dust and other dust that collected on, in, and around the fan,” Berglund said in the lawsuit.
“Bergland said that Building 12 and portions of Building 11 and connecting structures were destroyed.
“Berglund said Waldbaum sustained $24,908,633 damage, of which $22,408,633 was covered by Factory Mutual. The lawsuit seeks repayment of the full amount.”
“No one hurt”
Factory Mutual alleges, Pilger said, that “Henning breached its agreement with Waldbaum with respect to the design, construction, selection, use and installation of the manure blower fan assembly,” and “also created conditions that allowed the fire to rapidly spread.”
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Omaha.
The Michael Foods fire was the deadliest barn fire in the U.S. since a Moark Hatcheries fire killed an estimated half million hens and chicks on May 1, 2012 in Weld County, Colorado.
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.”
750 words on accounting, not a word on hens
“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.”
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.
Barn fires took 518,000 lives in 2022
While the February 27, 2020 barn fire killed an exceptionally large number of animals, barn fires are scarcely unusual, unforeseeable, or unpreventable events.
“More than 518,000 farm animals perished in barn fires in 2022,” Animal Welfare Institute spokesperson Margie Fishman told ANIMALS 24-7, “pushing the death toll to more than 6.3 million since 2013.
“These devastating numbers, which likely do not even represent the full scale of the problem, serve as an urgent reminder to the industry to prioritize fire safety and prevention on farms,” Fishman said.
Records not officially kept
“Just last week, a fire at [Kreider Farms] in Lebanon County, Pennsylvania, poultry farm killed an estimated 250,000 chickens and caused $12 million in damages,” Fishman reminded.
“Fire departments and municipalities are not required to report the number of animals killed in fires,” Fishman continued.
“The Animal Welfare Institute’s review of public records indicates that even departments that do submit fire incident reports to the U.S. Fire Administration fail to acknowledge animal deaths, including in the most extreme cases involving hundreds of thousands of fatalities,” Fishman added.
Causes seldom established
While the causes of most barn fires are never conclusively determined, many “are thought to have resulted from defective or improperly placed heating devices or, to a lesser degree, malfunctioning farming equipment,” Fishman said.
The February 27, 2020 Michael Foods fire in Bloomfield, Nebraska was started by malfunctioning equipment, the Factory Mutual Insurance lawsuit contends.
“As in previous years, barn fires in 2022 most often occurred in the Upper Midwest and Northeast,” Fishman said. “Of the 128 fires tracked by the Animal Welfare Institute in 2022, Wisconsin reported the most with 17, followed by New York with 14, Pennsylvania with 12, and Minnesota with 11.
No federal laws
“Also consistent with previous years,” Fishman continued, “chickens accounted for the overwhelming majority of farm animals suffering terrible deaths in fires, representing over 98% of all casualties in 2022.
“A number of individual fires on large operations once again proved to have catastrophic consequences. The three largest fires — all of which involved poultry — killed a total of 480,000 birds, representing 91% of the overall number. Two of those fires occurred in Minnesota and one in Pennsylvania.”
Noted Fishman, “No federal laws in the United States specifically protect farm animals from barn fires, and only a few states have adopted the National Fire Protection Association’s Fire & Life Safety in Animal Housing Facilities Code, which establishes safety requirements for animals in barns and other types of housing.”