In the wake of an ABC News investigation into alleged unsanitary and inhumane practices at one of the nation's largest egg farms, animal rights activists are calling for an end to the egg industry's widespread use of so-called "battery cages," in which birds live six to a cage in long stacks of wire cages.
"The battery cage system is inherently cruel and it's one of the cruelest systems we have in animal agriculture today," said Nathan Runkle of Mercy for Animals, who estimated that 95 percent of the hens used in egg production are kept in battery cages. During a press conference in Chicago today, he urged the industry to adopt more humane methods of egg production, and urged McDonald's, the nation's largest egg buyer, to stop buying eggs from battery cage farms.
Undercover video shot by a Mercy for Animals activist who worked at one of the nation's largest egg producers, Sparboe Farms, shows the battery cages in use. The video is featured in the ABC News investigation of egg farms, which aired on "20/20" Friday.
"Scott," the activist who made the tape, said that the five to seven birds were kept in each cage, with their beaks cut at an early cage so they wouldn't peck each other, and that each bird lived its life in an area smaller than a standard sheet of paper. He said the birds "can't fully spread their wings, they can't walk around."
"There were [dead] birds that were left in the cages that were decomposing for weeks or months at a time," claimed Scott, "that had just been left there . . . in the battery cages with birds who were still alive and laying eggs for human consumption."
When Brian Ross of ABC News visited a Sparboe facility in Vincent, Iowa, one of the farms where Scott had visited, Ken Klippen, head of government affairs at Sparboe, defended the hygiene and treatment of animals at his company, describing the images caught on tape as an "aberration."
He also defended the use of battery cages, denying that they are cruel. He accused animal rights activists of spreading myths about the cages, saying that it is possible for the birds to turn around and to spread their wings.
Asked why the cages have been banned in some states, Klippen said it was "because of misguided information. We're trying to make people understand that this is scientifically acceptable."
On Thursday, Sparboe was hit with a warning letter from the FDA that found "serious violations" involving eggs at five of its many locations involving "insanitary conditions whereby [the eggs] may have been rendered injurious to health.
Until the ABC News investigation and the FDA's warning, McDonald's drew all its eggs for restaurants west of the Mississippi River from Sparboe. Just before the ABC News report aired, McDonald's announced that it would no longer get its eggs from Sparboe Farms. Target also announced that it would no longer be buying eggs from Sparboe, and also said it would pull Sparboe eggs off its shelves immediately.