Report reveals cruelty at chicken farm, ag industry disputes claims

The Humane Society of the United States released a scathing undercover report this week exposing unsanitary and cruel conditions at a Lancaster County poultry facility.

The investigator, filming inside a giant hen house at Kreider Farms documented tightly crammed cages, live birds housed with mummified carcasses, birds trapped in wire and automatic feeders, a "blanket" of dead flies on the floor, a barn so dark workers needed headlamps and ammonia so potent workers need masks.

The video report drew national attention, broadcast on ABC World News Tonight and the New York Times. The HSUS says the deplorable conditions and extreme animal cruelty is evidence for national standards at egg farms where birds are kept in so-called "battery cages" so small they cannot stretch their wings. 

The HSUS report, conducted by an investigator who worked at the facility in February and March, also revealed that hundreds of thousands of birds died of dehydration after being left for days with no water after a water source malfunction and that the facility tested positive for salmonella.

Kreider Farms, one of the largest egg producers in Pennsylvania, struck back, calling the report's findings "unfounded" and at first suggesting the film wasn't taken at their Manheim facility.

When the company learned of the report ahead of its release on Wednesday, spokesman Dave Andrews told WGAL-TV they summoned state agriculture industry officials to come and inspect them.

The company said in its press release that the "Veterinary Medical Board" completed a "spontaneous" inspection and gave the facility a "clean bill of health." It provided no additional details.

Only it was not the Veterinary Medical Board that visited the facility. The board licenses veterinarians; it does not inspect poultry farms.

Rather it was representatives from the triumvirate of agricultural power in Pennsylvania who responded to the call: The University of Pennsylvania Veterinary Medical Center, Penn State and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture. Attempts to reach Donna Kelly of Penn Vet, Gregory Martin, a poultry expert at Penn State to discuss their findings, and the apparent discrepancy with the HSUS report, were unsuccessful.

A Department of Agriculture spokeswoman said state veterinarian Craig Schultz would not comment on the disparity in the reports. 

Kreider family members are supporters of Republican Gov. Corbett, contributing $15,000 to his gubernatorial campaign in 2010.

Andrews, who confirmed one building tested positive for salmonella but it had since been cleaned and none of the eggs tested positive, called the undercover operation false and taken out of context.

"They're taking select footage by going through a facility and finding a dead bird or something that may look unsavory and they’re blowing that up on camera and making this look like a representation of how we treat 5 million birds," Andrews told WGAL.

Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection for HSUS, said he was not surprised at the Kreider Farms action and the response by the agriculture industry which protects its own.

"They are charged with protecting agriculture and defending Pennsylvania agriculture," said Shapiro. "The video is quite damning."

To be sure, Kreider Farms does in fact house some its animals in sparkling clean barns. How do I know? I toured the Manheim dairy barn last year for a story on the farm's state-of-the-art nutrient waste processing. Like other members of the public who take similar tours, I witnessed cows lounging the "cow palace." where residents enjoy mist showers in the summer and waste is whisked away so quickly you could picnic on the floors.

On its website - its Facebook page quickly scrubbed of post-expose criticism - the company boasts of being "eco-friendly" and says 80 percent of its chickens would be living in luxurious housing by the end of 2011 - many of them in cage-free enclosures.

But the video suggests the public face and the private side of the sprawling farm are two different things.

In a statement released on Friday the Department of Agriculture takes allegations related to animal health and food safety "very seriously."

It said the state veterinarian visited and inspected the entire Kreider Farms Manheim facility a second time on Friday and determined "all practices, procedures and conditions met industry best practices and Pennsylvania Egg Quality Assurance Program standards."

The state said the facility has passed every state inspection over the past five years, showing high and consistent standards of flock health management at this facility but no inspection reports were provided.

The statement said the department focuses "solely on animal health issues as it does not have jurisdiction over animal welfare issues in the commonwealth."

In fact, no regulator is watching out for animal welfare issues when it comes to livestock.

[A similar rationale was made by the Bureau of Dog Law Enforcement in the past when asked why dog wardens never issued veterinary care orders or turned over cruelty cases to human society police officers. That changed after the Rendell administration ramped up inspections of commercial dog kennels and tightened enforcement beginning in 2006.)

Shapiro says it's easy for a factory farm to say it is not in violation when there are no rules on animal welfare.

But, he points out there is a connection between animal cruelty and public health.

"Crowded conditions bring on salmonella," he said. "If the company was interested in improving animal welfare they would stop giving birds less space than the industry recommends."