Sunday, May 11, 2008

Ethical Foods Memo: Will 'The Chickens Come Home to Roost'? Mercy For Animals Offers Additional Evidence On Hen Abuse; Gemperle Farms Goes Silent

The animal rights group Mercy For Animals--which says a video it has (a link to which we posted here in an earlier piece about the subject) showing abuse to hens at an egg-laying farm was taken at a Merced County, California facility owned and operated by Turlock, California-based Gemperle Farms--is offering more evidence and proof the video is from one of the company's egg ranches.

Although the video footage is grainy, it shows close ups of hens with badly festering sores, as well as chickens being pushes and pulled in and out of small cages by workers. There's even a scene in the video in which a ranch worker throws a hen on the ground, stomps on it, and then throws it into a pit of dirt.

Mercy for Animals says the video was taken at a Gemperle Farms' egg-laying facility in Merced County, California by an undercover operative for the animal rights group, who was hired to work as a maintenance man at the company's egg-laying facilities in the towns of Delhi and Hilmar in Merced County, and shot the video on site.

The animal rights group says the video was shot in January and February by the undercover operative using a hidden video camera.

Steve Gemperle, president of Gemperle Farms, has said he doesn't believe the video is from one of his egg-producing ranches, siting the grainy quality of the video as evidence that he or others can't tell it's one of the company's facilities.

Gemperle told the Sacramento Bee newspaper last Tuesday the video "is trying to discredit us. My company doesn't tolerate the abuse of animals. Abused animals don't produce eggs."

However, Gemperle has gone into the media underground since Tuesday. Modesto Bee reporter John Holland reported Friday that neither Gemperle or any other spokesperson for the would return his calls for comment on the video and accusation by Mercy For Animals that the video is from one of the company's Merced County egg-producing facilities. The Modesto Bee is a sister newspaper to the Sacramento Bee and is the largest daily newspaper in the Merced and Stanislaus County areas.

Natural~Specialty Foods Memo placed two calls to Gemperle Farms corporate office on Friday to talk with Gemperle or a spokesperson about the issue. Both times we were told by a receptionist that nobody from the company was available to talk about the issue.

Although Gemperle Farms isn't talking about the issue, Mercy For Animals is, offering further evidence they say proves the video is from the Gemperle Farms' egg-producing facilities in Merced County.

Nathan Runkle, executive director for Mercy For Animals, says the group has undercover video footage taken by the operative they claim was employed at the egg farms, of Steve Gemperle himself on site at the egg-laying farm, along with having pay stubs from the undercover operative which prove he worked at the facility.

Runkle also says there is video footage showing numerous faces of Gemperle Farms' employees, which further shows it's the Gemperle egg-laying farm where the video was taken showing the hens being abused, he says.

This isn't the first time an animal rights group has accused, and said it had video of, Gemperle Farms' employees abusing hens. In 2005, a group called Farm Sanctuary said it took video footage of hen abuses at a Gemperle Farms facility in Merced County.

The issue is getting lots of attention in California in part because a ballot initiative measure banning the use of small or battery-style hen cages in California will be on the November, 2008 electoral ballot. California voters will get to approve or deny the measure with their votes. If passed, the law would force California egg producers to stop using the small cages--which most use--in 2015.

The European Union has banned the use of the small or battery cages by egg producers in all its member nations effective in 2012.

Mercy For Animals' Runkle says he believes hen abuse is an industry norm in California and the U.S. rather than just the exception at Gemperle Farms. Farm Sanctuary agrees.

However, California's Pacific Egg and Poultry Association, a trade group for egg producers, says that's absolutely false. A spokesperson for the association says such abuse and treatment in the video is isolated in the California egg producing industry, as well as being "in violation of the association's and industry's high standards for animal welfare."

Any egg producer who allows such hen abuse is wrong and in violation of the association's standards, the spokesman says.

Mercy For Animals' Runkle says the group has asked the Merced County District Attorney's office to investigate the hen abuses it says occurred at Gemperle Farms in the county, which it claims are evidenced in the videos it has.

Merced County District Attorney Larry Morse has replied back to the animal rights group that based on the evidence currently available, the video, his office isn't going to launch an investigation into the matter at this time.

Morse told the Modesto Friday if there is evidence presented of hen abuse at the Gemperle Farms' facility, it first needs to be investigated by the county's Sheriff's Department. He said if any further evidence is provided to the Sheriff's Department, and if the department launches an investigation and find the results legitimate, he would welcome them forwarding it to the county DA's office for potential prosecution.

Gemperle Farms is one of the top egg producers in California, which is the number five egg-producing state in the U.S. The egg-producer sells its eggs to NuCal Foods, Inc., which is one of the largest egg distributors in the Western U.S. NuCal buys eggs from Gemperle and dozens of other egg-producers and distributes them to restaurants, institutions, supermarkets, convenience stores, drug stores and other classes of trade.

As we reported here, Trader Joe's, which bought eggs produced by Gemperle Farms from NuCal, announced last week it would no longer sell any eggs produced by the egg-producer at its stores because of the video.

NuCal, Inc. has nothing to do with the hen abuse issue. It's a distributor and marketer of eggs and isn't involved in operating egg-producing facilities.

We would strongly suggest two things to Gemperle Farms: first, obtain some experienced crisis communications public relations council.

Second, if you know the video showing the hen abuse is from one of your facilities, or even if you strongly think it might be, hang a lantern on it. With the help of your experienced crisis communications person, admit it happened at your facility and take immediate measures to make sure it never happens again. Take responsibility if responsibility is warranted.

These measures should include firing those people identified as abusing hens, bringing in independent third parties to help clean up the act at the facility and to eventually certify humane conditions, and ensuring superior animal health and welcoming regular third-party inspections of all the egg-producing facilities.

If you don't believe the video is from one of your facilities, then you need to communicate that fact through the media, as well as offer evidence the egg farm in the video isn't one of yours.

There are two constants in issues of this nature. Number one is to communicate with and through the media. When you go silent, people assume (especially reporters) you're guilty and hiding something. They assume this because more often than not it's the case.

Second, if it is your facility in the video, the sooner you admit it and pledge to fix it, the better things will get. This is particularly true if management has no knowledge of the hen abuse.

Meanwhile, honesty and sincerity are key in any plan to go forward. Animal abuse is no laughing matter. Either are false accusations if the facility really isn't a Gemperle Farms' egg-producing farm.

The truth needs to come out, and fast. Animals used to supply food for humans should never be abused. Its not only unethical and written about as a sin in the bible if one is a believer, it's also a poor economic practice. Stressed animals produce poor food. Humans aren't only their brothers' keepers, we also are the keepers of the animal species we use for our nourishment and sustenance

We know there was hen abuse. It's right there in the video. What we don't know for sure is if it occurred at a Gemperle Farms'-owned facility. If it did, and Gemperle Farms' knows it, it's the owner's moral and legal obligation to admit it. If the video isn't from a Gemperle Farms' facility, and Mercy For Animals is falsifying it, their credibility should and will be ruined forever. There also are legal aspects of such falsification should it be the case.

Let's get to the truth of this matter fast--for the sake of the hens, the reputation of ethical egg producers, and for the retailers who as the agents for consumers sell eggs in their stores.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Mr. Gemperle
If you think the undercover maintence worker that shot this video has caused you many sleepless nights think again sir. A closer look into the background of the employee you hired to replace him I would say is a must.
Do NORMAL people abuse animals? No but people on DRUGS will!!!Now your endangering human lives Mr. Gemperle. You have employee's spending their lunch hour getting high at their dealer's house then returning to work.Random Surprise Drug testing on your employees at a different lab your currently using because apparently they aren't doing their jobs correctly as well. Unless you alter your urine sample or take any of the numerous products on the market that helps you test negative there's NOWAY you can smoke methanphetamine at 12:00pm get tested 1 hour later and test negative for drugs. Your company is headed for even more disaster if you continue to ignore this problem