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Fires Don't Just Happen

Why Are These “Farmers” Still In Business?

by MARTHA ROSENBERG

It was a four-alarm fire requiring more than 50 fire departments and 100 firefighters. But owners of S&R Egg Farm in La Grange, Wisconsin say chemicals and explosives were not involved in the late January fire. Unless, of course, you count the ammonia buildup from 300,000 hens caged over their own manure in the barn that burned down. All the birds burned alive.

Whether you care about animals, the environment or the tax dollars used in extinguishing the blaze for which water had to be trucked in, charges should be brought against the owners of S&R Egg Farm. News outlets describe the operation as a “third-generation, family-owned business founded in 1958, producing up to 2 million eggs a year,” but no “family farm” produces 2 million eggs a year. Battery egg operations with millions of hens are a blight on farm workers, animals, the environment and the face of US agriculture. Grocery stores, distribution centers, egg wholesalers and food consumers should refuse to buy any products linked to S&R Egg Farm.

Fires occur with chilling regularity at factory farms for the same reason they occur in textile shops and in prison–the victims are the least powerful in society and few care. Four years ago 250,000 hens were incinerated at Ohio Fresh Eggs in Harpster, Ohio in a similar and predictable event. It took 225 firefighters and one million gallons of water, some from the Killdeer Plains Wildlife Area reservoir, to extinguish the blaze. Thank you taxpayers. The egg operation had one employee per 250,000 hens. Factory farming brings jobs.

The Ohio Department of Agriculture said it was sending the bodies of the burned hens to the pet and animal feed processor G.A. Wintzer & Son Co. in Wapakoneta. Ohio Fresh Eggs said its “Easter egg donation project”  would go forward as planned.

Ohio Fresh Eggs, linked to the infamous Teflon chicken don Jack DeCoster, boasts a three decade list of worker and environmental violations. In February of 1987, a fire at its Turner, Maine operation killed 100,000 birds and DeCoster was only charged with polluting groundwater with their carcasses. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich called the Turner operation a “sweatshop” and Cesar Britos, an attorney representing egg workers, said he thought he would faint in the egg barns though he “was only there a few minutes.”

Thirteen years after Reich and Britos visited, four law enforcement officials involved in a raid at the same operation had to be treated by doctors for lungs burned by the ammonia concentrations in the barns. Six months ago, an employee at the same operation was shot and killed by another employee who was ”shooting rodents and stray chickens while clearing a barn.” Nice.

Nor are the factory farm fires limited to egg operations. 8,700 pigs perished in a 2008 fire at a Netley Hutterite Colony hog farm in Manitoba which had only six full-time employees. Bulldozers could not breach the manure pits, said news reports, making the fire more deadly. Hogs perished in the same barn in Flora, Indiana, owned by Lynn Peters, twice, according to news reports and hog farmers Jan and Nancy Pannekoek of Chilliwack, BC, have three hog farm fires to their name–and counting. Why are charges not brought? Why are these “farmers” allowed to repeat this abuse?

Fires don’t just “happen” as fire science and alarms, sprinkler systems and contingency plans have shown for decades. But Big Ag and local and state regulators believe a few thousand animals burned to death is just the cost of producing a cheap product. And when food consumers embrace these “cheap” products without questioning their origin and production they are guilty, too.

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).