Top US egg producer caught in cruel hen video
By Martha Rosenberg
Online Journal Contributing Writer
May 20, 2008, 00:18
The Boy Scouts of America Greater Yosemite Council commended
his leadership in transforming "a small family farm model to the current
computer driven egg-producing company." The Stanislaus County Board of
Supervisors inducted him into the Agriculture Hall of Fame. But according to an undercover video aired on
TV stations earlier this month, including CNN, the avuncular, civic-minded
Ernie Gemperle operates a chamber of horrors for the two million chickens caged
on his Turlock, Calif.-based Gemperle Enterprises farms.
The video, which includes workers gassing and stomping sick
hens and carcasses pulled from live hen cages, was shot over a two-month period
earlier this year at Gemperle Enterprises egg farms in Delhi and Hilmar,
Calif., by an unidentified, undercover investigator hired to repair cages and
machines at the sites.
It was circulated by Chicago-based Mercy for Animals (MFA),
a non-profit group credited with exposing abuses at the Raeford, NC-based
turkey processor, House of Raeford in 2007 and Croton, Ohio-based Ohio Fresh
Eggs in 2004.
Following a Sacramento press conference at which California
State Sen. Carole Migden said, "I am horrified to see that farmers and
workers would treat animals with such disregard," Monrovia-based Trader
Joe's announced an "indefinite" ban of NuCal Foods, Inc., which
distributes Gemperle eggs.
Ripons, Calif.-based NuCal Foods is the largest distributor
of shell eggs in the western United States, also supplying Raley's, SaveMart
Supermarkets and the U.S. Department of Defense at over 200 commissaries, says
Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals.
Raley's spokeswoman Nicole Townsend told the Associated
Press the chain plans to continue to carry all eggs from NuCal, but "does
not condone any acts of cruelty to animals," -- as if there's no
The video shows what amounts to the entire life cycle of the
modern caged laying hen from stuffing of the newly arrived pullets into file
drawer sized cages to retrieving them months later for the kill cart gas
chamber when they're "spent," barely recognizable as birds or being alive.
"There are multiple shots of moribund chickens with
ailments ranging from broken limbs to abscessed cloacae to illness so severe
the birds are unable to open their eyes or stand," commented Santa Rosa
veterinarian Dr. Christi Camlbor after viewing the video. "The presence of
animals in such poor conditions without any apparent method to detect them or
provide them with an instant death is extremely concerning."
"It is unclear why personnel depicted in this video
chose to subject birds to obvious pain and suffering when other means are
available," says Dr. Sara Shields, an animal behavior scientist and
industry consultant. "Stepping on a bird or twisting her neck is
absolutely NOT an acceptable method for killing a chicken. However, both of
these methods are shown in the video. The hens were undoubtedly in acute pain
and continued to suffer a protracted, slow death, as the video clearly shows
they are not dead when left."
In fact sadistic killing games were a regular part of work
at Gemperle Enterprises according to the MFA investigator. "Think I can
kill it in just one hit?" he records in his diary a coworker with a six
foot piece of PVC pipe asked him upon seeing a loose chicken on February 23,
When caught red-handed, factory farmers often charge
investigators with permitting or facilitating animal cruelty by not going to
But twice in the past two years a different humane group,
Farm Sanctuary, submitted similar videos to Merced County law enforcement
authorities who did not investigate, bring charges or even respond to
"We are obviously not going to launch a prosecution
based on unsubstantiated video," District Attorney Larry Morse III told
the Modesto Bee after the MFA expose. "If we have evidence of mistreatment
of animals, it should be investigated by the Sheriff's Department, and if found
to be legitimate, then should be forwarded to our office."
Nor can Gemperle Enterprises fall back on the standard
the-tape-is-inauthentic defense because the video includes external and
internal building markers and even images of company president Steve Gemperle
inside the sheds, says MFA. (So much for the we-didn't-know defense.)
And, when given a chance to prove MFA's video false by
letting Sacramento KCRA 3 camera crews into the egg barns, Ernie Gemperle
declined -- on camera.
Working on an Ohio angle to the story, reporter Tom Brockman
with NBC 4 in Columbus encountered a similar news camera embargo at Ohio Fresh
Eggs in Croton. "We were told making those arrangements usually take days
for reasons like they must have enough biohazard suits on hand," he said.
Not surprisingly, industry officials don't want to discuss
the video in light of the fact that Gemperle Enterprises held a
"humane" certification from United Egg Producers, the trade group
representing 85 percent of U.S. egg producers. Oops.
"It's been very difficult to get anyone involved in the
egg industry to watch the video and comment," disclosed reporter Dan Noyes
with ABC 7's I-Team. "Not the state Department of Food and Agriculture,
the poultry experts at UC Davis, and not even the county extension agents who
work with the farms. We had to go all the way to the University of Maryland to
speak with an expert in the Avian and Animal Sciences Department."
Looking more like Jack Kevorkian than Farmer Jones, Ernie
Gemperle told KCRA 3 reporters when the video broke it constituted an
"invasion of privacy" and the birds are well cared for and treated
"better every year." He defended the gassing seen on the video as how
you dispose of "sick birds," sick apparently meaning
"spent" and "unprofitable" since they are all gassed.
A few days later though Gemperle changed his mind and issued
a press release saying "employees were coerced by the activist to engage
in behavior that is against our high standards for hen welfare for the sole
purpose of filming a sensational video."
Martha Rosenberg is
staff cartoonist on the Evanston Roundtable. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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