Hidden camera video footage from the Humane Society of the United States shows what the organization is calling deplorable conditions inside chicken coops owned by Hillandale Farms, one of the largest egg producers in the country, from dead, decomposing birds in cramped cages to piles of broken eggs on the floor.
Now Hillandale, which supplies eggs to Costco Wholesale and other big retailers, is telling ABC News’ “Nightline” what was captured in the video is not the norm for them and that their facilities are clean and continue to be improved. Hillandale also maintains their facilities meet all state and federal guidelines.
The hidden camera footage was shot by an undercover investigator from the Humane Society of the United States who worked as a day laborer at Hillandale for three weeks from mid-April to early May. His mission was to gain access to one of the company’s facilities near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and secretly film the conditions inside the chicken coops.
The Humane Society video shows chickens living in tight quarters with little room to move, cages draped in long trails of dust, and dead chickens being scraped up. Below is an excerpt of some of their footage:
Humane Society spokesman Wayne Pacelle said the cages wouldn’t look so dirty if Hillandale was cleaning them every day.
“The birds are mummified. That means the birds had to have been here for a while,” he said, after reviewing the video footage. “Warning bells go off for me, and they should go off for the FDA. They should be going off for Costco. They should be going off for the American consumer.”
Hillandale has a history. It was partly responsible for the biggest egg recall ever in the US. In 2010, a salmonella outbreak sickened an estimated 1,900 people. Federal food safety officials traced the outbreak back to several big egg farms, including a Hillandale facility in Iowa.
Congress held hearings on the outbreak. Duane Mangskau, a production representative of Hillandale at the time, maintained that the company had a long history of safety. But Orland Bethel, then the president of Hillandale Farms, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and refused to answer questions. His son Gary Bethel is now the president of the company.
After the Humane Society shared its footage with “Nightline,” we showed it to Hillandale. A week later, the company agreed to give us a tour of the same facility where the Humane Society investigator said he had shot the hidden camera footage.
The place appeared to have been cleaned up since the footage was shot. The dust and feathers were mostly gone. There were no signs of dead animals or piles of broken eggs on the floor.
Jeff Martin, a Hillandale manager at the facility, said he was “disturbed” when he saw the footage.
“My first reaction was I was disturbed because it doesn’t represent what we are,” Martin said. “I walk these houses. I walk these facilities week in and week out and I don’t see that. I don’t see what was in that video, and there were parts of the video that saddened me. There were parts of the video that made me angry, and so we launched a full-scale investigation as to what happened.”
The chicken coop is about the size of a football field and holds roughly 120,000 hens, bunched roughly six hens to a cage.
The company insists it has rigorous food safety standards designed to protect against another salmonella outbreak. Here is one of Hillandale's promotional videos.
Hillandale officials said they vaccinate every hen against salmonella, have a staff veterinarian on-site and use only vegetarian feed, which they say is less likely to be vulnerable to an infection.
Dr. Gregory Martin, a poultry educator from Penn State University who has worked with Hillandale, insists the conditions seen in that undercover video posed no real danger.
"As bad as it looked... it wasn't a threat to the safety of those eggs." he told "Nightline."
Hillandale also has to pass quarterly inspections from state agriculture officials, which they have. But company officials admitted they are not satisfied with the conditions they saw on the Humane Society video.
“If I only saw that video, and I wasn’t in the business, it would concern me,” said Jeff Martin of Hillandale. “[But] that’s not our operation. That is not what you see, that the video doesn’t-- isn’t a true representation of our program. We have the safest food safety program in the industry. And the industry as a whole is improved.”
Jeff Martin also challenged the intentions of the Humane Society investigator who shot the undercover video and who they say lied to Hillandale about his intentions to work for them as a laborer whose duties they said involved cleaning up exactly the sorts of messes he was documenting.
“He shot the video, and then turned around, put the video away, got his broom, got his squeegee, cleaned up the eggs, didn’t tape that,” Martin said. “Because that’s our program and that’s what we do day in, day out. That’s what our managers are paid to do, day in and day out, to ensure that we can produce a safe, quality product.”
“I see it as an attack,” Martin continued. “Because we would welcome, if someone wanted to come see our farm and see how we treated the birds, we would welcome. We would welcome working with them. So they don’t have to come in undercover and shoot a video that isn’t the normal thing. They’re shooting a manipulation of what a day is.”
David Acheson, an independent food safety consultant, agreed with Martin that the Humane Society video does not give a complete picture of the conditions at Hillandale facilities.
“Videos, by definitions, are snapshots in time,” Acheson said. “So one is looking at the video saying, ‘Yes, the conditions that one is seeing right now. They don’t look good, they don’t look appropriate,’ and there are certain things in the video that would lead you to believe they’ve been there a while.”
But he pointed out that there were some troubling red flags, including the dead birds seen in the video being scraped off the cages.
“When you see dead birds that, some of them appear to have died recently, you expect that. I mean, it’s not a very nice topic but unfortunately birds die, animals die and that’s to be expected,” Acheson said. “But when you see evidence that some of those carcasses from the dead birds had been there for what would appear many days, if not weeks, then that clearly raises concern. ... If I was a buyer of eggs from a facility and saw those conditions, I’d think twice.”
Hillandale took “Nightline” to a second chicken coop even bigger than the first -- a complex of five buildings, each of which holds 250,000 birds. It was newer and even bigger than the one where the Humane Society footage had been filmed. The equipment inside looked new, and the company said it was in the process of upgrading the first chicken coop.
The demand for eggs has only gone up in recent years.
“Eggs have made a turnaround,” Martin said. “Years ago, there was concern about cholesterol. Now, eggs are an energy food. So consumption per individual is up. ... The day of the small corner grocery store that needs a case of eggs a week to satisfy their customer is gone. Most grocery stores now are requiring trailer loads of grocery eggs a week. So as they have grown, producers have grown.”
The Humane Society does have another agenda. Food safety is only part of the battle the organization is fighting. They are also concerned about the welfare of animals cooped up in such confined conditions, each of them they say are allocated less space than a standard sheet of writing paper.
The Humane Society advocates for cage-less facilities which they insist are kinder on the hens and safer for humans. Their argument: that massive chicken coop facilities like the ones at Hillandale are not only cruel to the animals but, if unsanitary, the poultry products they generate can be dangerous for human consumption too.
“When a biological organism is severely stressed, they’re more susceptible to the onset of disease,” said Wayne Pacelle of the Humane Society. “Plus, when they’re overcrowded, you have more pathways for transmission. I mean, you know [if] you go to a crowded classroom with kids and one kid is infected, all the kids can quickly get infected.”
The organization is trying to pressure big retailers such as Costco not to buy any eggs from farms that keep hens in cages, which the Humane Society considers cruel.
“Costco is the third-biggest food seller in the United States,” Pacelle said. “It told us eight years ago that it was going to opt for cage-free production and only use suppliers that would produce those cage-free eggs for its many millions of consumers.”
In a statement to “Nightline,” Costco says it is “committed to the ethical treatment of animals”, and says that while “Hillandale has identified some areas in which it believes it can improve”, it believes, based on their inspections, that “Hillandale is behaving appropriately.” Read Costco's full statement at the end of this story.
In regards to overcrowding, Hillandale told “Nightline” that it negotiates the cages’ space size with industry standards, averaged over the size of the entire facility. In an agreement negotiated with the Humane Society, poultry producers had even agreed to double the space they provide for each hen but that agreement was scuttled by other agriculture interests concerned about setting a precedent.
Hillandale disputes the Humane Society’s methods and motives in filming the hidden camera material.
“If the goals are to produce safe, quality food in an animal-friendly environment, we’re all for that,” Jeff Martin said. “If the agenda is to get people to stop eating eggs, chicken, spare ribs, steak, that’s a whole different animal.”
Costco Wholesale's Full Statement to ABC News 'Nightline' Regarding This Report:
Costco Wholesale is committed to the ethical treatment of animals. Our mission statement to this effect is contained on our web site. We enforce this through testing and inspection of facilities, done by persons who are independent of the suppliers.
There are vigorous debates about animal welfare and laying hens. Some, such as the Humane Society, advocate that hens be “cage free,” and not confined in cages. Some advocate that cages are safer for hens. Some jurisdictions, such as California, have laws mandating that eggs derive from hens confined in cages of a certain size.
We respect that many people prefer to buy and consume cage free eggs. Our Kirkland Signature Organic Eggs derive from cage free hens, and along with other cage free items we sell over fifty million dozen cage free eggs a year. Over the last nine years, the number of organic and cage free eggs we sell has increased more than twenty fold.
One of our suppliers, Hillandale Farms, was featured in a video recently released by the Humane Society. Hillandale has released a statement with its perspective on the incident, available at http://hillandalefarms.com/. Inspections that we have conducted there as recently as this week confirmed for us that Hillandale is behaving appropriately. Hillandale has identified some areas in which it believes it can improve, including process improvement and more training for its employees. We support these efforts.