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Activists press owner of IHOP and Applebee's to buy eggs from more-humane producers

The Humane Society of the United States' pursuit of DineEquity is part of its effort to steer restaurants away from serving eggs produced in 'battery cages,' pens that give chickens limited space.

October 15, 2009|Jerry Hirsch

Animal rights activists are going after DineEquity Inc., the Glendale parent of the IHOP and Applebee's restaurant chains. They want the restaurant company to start buying eggs from suppliers that they believe treat chickens in a more humane fashion.

The Humane Society of the United States is circulating a video of what it describes as inhumane conditions at a Le Sueur, Minn., facility owned by Michael Foods Inc., one of IHOP's egg suppliers.

The video shows decomposing dead hens in cages with live hens, sick and injured chickens, and both living and dead hens stuck between cage wires.

It's part of the Humane Society's efforts to steer restaurants away from serving eggs produced in "battery cages," which are pens shared by several birds, each of which gets living space about the size of a piece of paper.

In a referendum in November, California voters outlawed battery cages. The law does not take effect until 2015. Michigan adopted a similar law Monday.

DineEquity says it has no plans to change its egg suppliers now, and it also said it was not clear that keeping hens in battery cages was any worse than other ways of producing eggs.

"Mortality is going to be part of the process," said Patrick Lenow, DineEquity's spokesman.

He said the restaurant company investigated production at Michael Foods and came away confident that the video "was not representative" of conditions at the supplier.

Michael Foods said the video "is not an accurate depiction of the laying facilities." The company confirmed the video was shot at its plant but said some scenes "were staged for effect." Michael Foods said it "does not contend that it is perfect or that its employees never make mistakes." But the company said the video was designed to promote vegetarian eating and was "unbalanced."

IHOP's corporate policy states that "we are against the cruel treatment of animals used in the production of food for our restaurants."

By not moving to offer cage-free eggs, the chain is ignoring its policy, said Paul Shapiro, spokesman for the Humane Society.

"Not only are the hens abused in ways that are egregious, but the company is also misleading consumers about that abuse. These birds are confined in cages so small, they can't even spread their wings. IHOP can and should do better," Shapiro said.

Burger King, Hardee's, Quizno's, Carl's Jr. and Denny's have agreed to make cage-free eggs up to 5% of their U.S. egg purchases. Persuading IHOP to do the same would be a huge win for the Humane Society. There are more than 1,400 IHOP restaurants in the U.S., and the vast majority of what it sells, whether pancakes or some other breakfast, contains egg as an ingredient or is served with eggs.

Lenow said there was no clear science that demonstrates whether alternatives to battery-cage egg production are more humane.

Cage-free hens are kept in a facility similar to what farmers use to grow chickens for meat. They live in large warehouses. They don't go outside, but they can walk around and spread their wings and lay their eggs in nests and engage in more natural bird behaviors.

McDonald's, another big egg user, said in May that it would work with egg supplier Cargill Inc. and several animal welfare scientists to conduct a commercial-scale study of housing alternatives for hens.

The study, which involves tens of thousands of hens, will examine various housing environments such as cage-free and "enriched housing," which includes nests and perches. The restaurant chain hopes to learn what effect these different egg-laying systems have on animal health and well-being, as well as their effect on environmental issues and the cost of food.

"There's a very compelling need for a study of this scope," Marie Wheatley, chief executive of the American Humane Assn. -- a different group from the Humane Society -- said when the study was launched.

"While scientists indicate there are benefits for laying hen birds to be able to demonstrate more natural behaviors associated with a cage-free environment, there are open questions on other animal welfare matters such as feather pecking and mortality rates."

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jerry.hirsch@latimes.com

twitter.com/latimesjerry

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