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Of Blood and Eggs

by MARTHA ROSENBERG

When Nancy Reimers, a veterinarian working for the United Egg Producers-supported Californians for Safe Food told California newspapers that, “Modern chicken houses are heated, cooled and monitored in every possible area,” she didn’t mean monitored by humane investigators with cameras.

When she swore, working against the November 4 California ballot initiative Proposition 2 that would outlaw battery egg cages, that “non-caged birds have more contact with their own droppings and are therefore at a higher risk of infecting their eggs” than caged birds, she did not expect videotaped images of blood and insect covered eggs from the farms she defends to be available for voters to make up their own minds.

And when Reimers contends that caged hens’ very ability to lay eggs proves their wellbeing since stressed “chickens quit laying eggs,” she did not expect full color, videotaped footage of their bleeding, prolapsed vents to surface–showing how much pain the hens are actually in.

As the egg industry and agribusiness trot out “experts” to defend California’s $337 million egg industry against Prop 2’s humane changes, the diary of “Aaron,” who worked at the Norco Ranch egg farm in Menifee, CA in August and September of this year stands in sharp contrast.

Sunday, 9/7/08

I found a live hen with her body trapped under her cage’s front wall and draped over the egg belt with eggs backing up against her head. I picked up the hen and took her to a worker, saying, “She’s not dead.” The worker immediately grabbed the hen by the head and spun her in circles for several seconds before throwing her on the concrete floor, where she gasped, twitched her legs, and convulsed for nearly two minutes.

Aaron was hired to maintain the egg conveyor belts in 11 barns at Norco Ranch in Menifee, CA for $8.50 an hour, 12 hours a day, six days a week with no overtime–one of the “jobs for working families” the egg industry boasts about.

His non English speaking coworkers remove manure–toxic with pink fly poison pellets–and depopulate spent hens in carbon dioxide chambers for considerably less an hour.

Thirty barns constitute Norco Ranch’s Menifee facility holding 30,000 hens each. Two employees work seven barns; another is responsible for six barns.

Of course it is not pleasant to enter the mice and maggot infested 100 degrees barns where you can’t breathe without a face mask or hear without yelling thanks to the distress calls of panicked, packed birds.

But it is even less pleasant to live there.

Live hens in dead piles and failed “euthanasia,” dying birds unable to get to food and water and decomposed hens on whom live ones stand are clearly seen in the video Aaron shot at Norco Ranch for Chicago-based Mercy For Animals.

While egg industry veterinarians work the news show circuit, no veterinarian care is given to laying hens like those in the video who suffer from orbital lesions occluding their eyes, debeaking mutilations hampering their eating and severe trauma around their cloacas or vents.

“Several of the video shots show birds suffering from what appears to be cloacal prolapse. The production of large eggs by small birds is one factor that may predispose laying hens to this condition,” says researcher and animal welfare consultant Sara Shields upon viewing the Norco Ranch footage.

“Laying hens confined to battery cages are not able to lay their eggs in the privacy of an enclosed nest box. Without a secluded, protected space in which to lay her egg, a hen is exposed to potential vent pecking and cannibalism by cage-mates, and this may be a cause of the cloacal hemorrhage depicted in the video.”

In fact that is exactly what Aaron encountered on Sunday, August 24.

“I found a hen in a top cage with a large prolapse dripping blood. There was one other hen in her cage who had a bloody beak, indicating that this bird had been cannibalizing the prolapse,” he wrote in his diary.

When factory farms like Norco Ranch are exposed–Mercy For Animals has released videos from House of Raeford in North Carolina, Ohio Fresh Eggs in Croton and Gemperle in Turlock, CA–management usually vows to “investigate” the “bad apples”—while simultaneously accusing documenters of permitting or staging cruelty.

Yet Aaron repeatedly pointed out suffering animals to other employees and oblivious supervisors.

“I told one woman who had worked at Norco for 27 years that the birds had prolapsed egg vents which were bleeding and painful,” Aaron told a reporter.

“You mean their insides are coming out?” she asked in Spanish, recounts Aaron, conveying she had never heard of the condition before. “You should kill them but first act the supervisor.”

The supervisor said to kill them if “it wasn’t too many.”

Nor are the hygienic black holes known as modern egg farms even capable of animal welfare with one employee assigned to from 180,000 to 330,000 chickens.

And while agribusiness says the incredible, edible egg comes from a “science based” system–at least after the blood, manure and mites are removed– how do you know “unless you’ve seen it for yourself?” asks Aaron.

“I could not personally give someone information unless I saw it myself.”

MARTHA ROSENBERG is staff cartoonist on the Evanston Roundtable. She can be reached at mrosenberg@evmark.org

 

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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).

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