Friday, May 23, 2008

Ethical Foods Memo: 'Cage Match': California's Gemperle Farms Now Says Animal Rights Group 'Staged' Chicken Abuse Video; Group Threatens Lawsuit

The ongoing "cage match" between the animal rights group Mercy for Animals and Gemperle Farms, a major egg-producer located in California's San Joaquin Valley, continues.

As we first reported here earlier this month, the non-profit animal rights group posted a video online it says was taken by an undercover operative for the group who obtained a job as a maintenance man at one of Gemperle Farms' egg-producing farms in Merced County, California. Gemperle Farms headquarters is located nearby in the the city of Turlock in Stanislaus County. The two counties are neighboring ones.

The video shows egg-laying hens being tossed in and out of cages in a forceful and cruel manner, along with a hen being thrown to the ground, stomped on by a worker, and then tossed in what looks like a manure pile in the video.

Gemperle Farms responded by saying the video is too grainy and of too poor quality to allow the company to determine if the egg-laying farm in it is one of its own.

Mercy for Animals then fired back, saying the undercover operative can prove he took the video at the Gemperle Farms' Merced County facility because not only does the group have pay stubs showing the undercover activist/videographer worked at the egg farm, it also claims it has additional video showing Steve Gemperle, the egg-producing company's owner, at the farm in the video.

To date we have not been able to find any additional posted video showing Gemperle on the site. Nathan Runckle, executive director for Mercy for Animals claims it has such video.

Gemperle Farms claims Mercy for Animals coercion

Meanwhile, although Gemperle Farms isn't talking to the press--Natural~Specialty Foods Memo has called the company twice and was told both times by a receptionist there was no one available to discuss the issue--including the leading daily newspaper in the area, the Modesto Bee, the company has now issued a written statement regarding the hen abuse video.

In the statement, Gemperle Farms accuses Mercy for Animals of staging the undercover video that shows the hen abuse, claims the undercover activist/videographer manipulated workers into abusing the chickens, and says the animal rights group manipulated the video in its favor.

The statement says: "We (Gemperle Farms) have reviewed the video claiming to represent our practices, and find the accusations to be a staged, vicious attack on our reputable company."

The statement says further: "We are continuing to investigate and now know our employees were coerced by the activist (the videographer) to engage in behavior that is against our high standards for hen welfare for the sole purpose of filming a sensational video."

A couple points: First, prior to issuing this statement, Gemperle Farms denied the video was taken at one of it's egg-laying farms. However, the very nature of the written statement demonstrates the company is now admitting the video was shot at one of its Merced County egg-laying farms, even though it says the workers were coerced to abuse the hens.

Second point: In the statement, Gemperle Farms seems to be admitting there was hen abuse; just that the workers did it under the coercive power of the activist/videographer, who was employed at the facility as an undercover operative for Mercy for Animals.

This defense sort of reminds us of the obedience to authority studies done decades ago by the psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram had authoritative looking researchers in white lab coats tell people off the street to administer increasing levels of shock to various subjects (there really was no electrical shock, but the people doing the shocking didn't know it). The vast majority of people being told by the "authority figure" ended up giving the subjects what if real would have been lethal doses of electric current.

When asked later, after the researchers' explained it wasn't real and debriefed them, why they kept giving the subjects higher doses of electricity, nearly all of the participants said it was because they didn't think the authority figures in the white lab coats would tell them to do anything that would hurt the subjects. In other words, obedience to authority was the key variable.

The problem with Gemperle Farms' argument is two fold: implicit in its argument that the workers were coerced into abusing the hens, is an admission the abuse occurred, basically validating Mercy for Animals' assertion.

Second, the activist/videographer who the company claims was able to coerce these workers into abusing the hens, was far from an authority figure. The workers at the egg farm knew him only as a maintenance man who's job it was to fix broken cages.

Gemperle Farms does leave itself an out by saying the video was manipulated by the animal rights group. But that comes a little late in that the statement which already offers an implicit admission the hen abuse occurred; otherwise what did the undercover activist coerce the workers to do?

It would be interesting to know how Gemperle Farms has dealt with the employees who it now admits abused the hens but were coerced in to doing so. Have they been fired? If not, perhaps made to attend some seminars on animal abuse? Or, has Gemperle done nothing since it claims the workers were coerced and that the abuse isn't of the level shown in the video?

Questions for Mercy for Animals too

Regarding Mercy for Animals, why hasn't the group released the video they say they have showing Gemperle Farms' president Steve Gemperle on the egg farms' property? Match the background of that video up with the background in the earlier posted video and they would have a rather strong case.

It's rather odd the animal rights group hasn't released that additional video in our analysis.

Additionally, why hasn't Mercy for Animals released copies of the paycheck stubs it claims it has, showing the activist worked for Gemperle Farms? Take some photographs of or computer scan the pay stubs, and post them on the groups website. Simple. And it's further evidence for the group's case.

Lastly, why not have the undercover activist/videographer sign an affidavit swearing to everything: that he worked for Gemperle Farms, took the undercover video of the workers without coercing them, and that he witnessed Mr. Gemperle on the farm?

Doing these three things would make it very difficult for anybody to further dispute that the video was shot on the farm; although thanks to Gemperle Farms' written statement that part of the story is pretty much now found to be true.

Publishing the affidavit would add to the group's case though, and would make it incumbent on Gemperle Farms then to have the workers who are claiming to be coerced also sign affidavit's swearing to their positions we believe.

A person can't go to jail for filing a false affidavit generally. However, such behavior can be used as evidence in a civil court lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Mercy for Animals' Nathan Runckle, who says the video the group has posted is the real thing, said on May 13 if Gemperle Farms doesn't retract it's statement, the group will sue the company for libel.

In a letter Runckle sent to Gemperle Farms, he gave the company until 8:30pm on May 13 to retract the statement.

Gemperle Farms has not retracted the statement to date. We also can't find any libel lawsuits filed to date against Gemperle Farms by Mercy for Animals. We wonder why no lawsuit from the animal rights group yet?

More on the video

As we reported in early May, the Mercy for Animals video, which it claims was shot at Gemperle's Merced County egg-laying facility, shows hens with festering sores, and a worker roughly pulling hens out of cages and pushing them in, as well as the scene where the worker stomps on a hen and tosses it into the dirt or manure pile.

In its written statement, Gemperle Farms claims the most sensational parts of the video (those above) were the ones that were staged. It also claims the group manipulated the video by speeding up the frames so that it "appears the actions of the workers are more forceful than they really are."

Runckle calls that nonsense, saying the footage is untouched and real.

Trader Joe's stops selling Gemperle Farms' eggs

Trader Joe's, which previously sold eggs from Gemperle Farms, stopped buying eggs from the distributor who handles the company's sales shortly after the hen abuse issue became public in early May. Thus far, we are aware of no other California-based retailers that have stopped buying Gemperle-produced eggs to date besides Trader Joe's.

Gemperle Farms and California egg production

Gemperle Farms is a major California egg producer. According to published company statistics, it had more than 1 million egg-laying hens as of 2006.

The company was founded in 1950, and its written literature says it currently employees about 180 workers.

Gemperle Farms has its headquarters in Turlock, California, a city of about 75,000 residents in the San Joaquin Valley county of Stanislaus. It operates numerous egg-laying farms and related facilities in nearby Merced County. Stanislaus County has about 500,000 residents and Merced County about 250,000, according to recently published data from the State of California.

Merced County is the number one egg-producing region in California. California produced about 2.82 billion eggs last year, according to the California Department of Agriculture. Of that total, nearly two-thirds were produced in Merced County, according to the state agriculture department.

No resolution in site

As we said in our earlier May stories on this "cage match," the truth and complete story should come out. However, that appears not to be the case thus far--and we have a feeling this battle has more drama to go before there's a resolution.

In November, California voters will vote on a ballot initiative measure which if passed by a majority of the state's voters will outlaw the use by California egg-producers of small or battery-type hen cages, as we reported here.

November is just six months away, and between now and the election we expect to see the small hen cage--and the Mercy for Animals/Gemperle Farms battle--heat up even more so.

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo Related Stories:

There's a link to the Mercy for Animals organization's hen abuse video on the May 8, "Group Says it has Video Showing Hen Abuse," piece linked above.

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