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Group alleges cruelty to hens

Supporters of Prop. 2 release video said to be taken at a ranch in Riverside County.

October 14, 2008|Howard Blume | Times Staff Writer

In the run-up to a ballot initiative that would regulate the treatment of farm animals, an animal rights group has released footage showing egg-laying hens crammed into filthy cages, while, nearby, discarded birds are left to die in piles of corpses.

The footage, the latest by animal rights activists working undercover at factory farms, is intended to boost support for Proposition 2. The November ballot initiative would require that confined cattle, pigs and chickens have enough space to lie down, stand up, turn around freely and extend their limbs. Because there are few veal producers in the state and the largest pork producer here has already said it would eliminate small crates, the initiative would apply to the 19 million laying hens in California.

Opponents said the measure, if passed, would serve only to push egg producers and jobs outside of California. They also insist that California eggs are among the safest and healthiest in the country, saying that the "indoor housing system" typically in use here results in fewer contaminated eggs than with uncaged and free-range chickens.

The animal rights organization Mercy for Animals said the footage was taken at Norco Ranch in Riverside County.

Activists from the same group posted similar hidden-camera footage in May that was shot at Gemperle Enterprises in Turlock, which prompted retailer Trader Joe's to drop the company as a supplier.

A Gemperle executive said at the time that animal mistreatment violated company policy and that the undercover worker should have come forward immediately to report problems.

The industry-supported No on Prop. 2 campaign called the latest film "a dubious, cynical, politically motivated effort."

"The [Norco] ranch maintains thorough veterinary records and was recently inspected by the county of Riverside during the same time period in which the video was apparently shot," said Julie Buckner, spokeswoman for the No on Prop. 2 campaign. "The inspection report notes that the ranch's proper handling of hens was appropriate, conforms to industry-accepted standards and found the ranch to be in 'excellent' standing."

Nathan Runkle, executive director of Chicago-based Mercy for Animals, said the film footage suggests industrywide issues.

The undercover video that Runkle said was shot at Norco in August and September shows four to six hens crowded into cages the size of a file drawer. Some hens are bleeding or have open wounds; a few are trapped in the opening to the egg conveyor -- unable to move.

Such is life for about a year and eight months, until these specially bred egg-layers begin to wear out, Runkle said. Hens are then supposed to be gassed, he said, but the video shows workers swinging chickens violently to break their necks, then discarding them, still alive, on the ground. Gasping chickens struggle among piles of already dead birds.

Mercy for Animals advocates veganism, but "the main issue we see here is egregious cruelty to animals that no compassionate person would accept or tolerate," Runkle said. At the same time, "anyone that watches the footage would have some serious questions about food safety after seeing bodies rotting in cages, older birds covered in cobwebs and eggs crawling with mites."

Norco Ranch management declined to comment, referring calls to the No on Prop. 2 campaign.

The Riverside County operation manages about 8 million hens, according to the company's website, which also touts 11 quality-control inspectors and refrigerated shipping docks.

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howard.blume@latimes.com

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