Sparboe Farms, the embattled Iowa egg producer at the center of an ABC News investigation, has created a task force to investigate the company's operations, it was announced this week.
Calling it a "Sustainability Task Force," charged with "reviewing all current company practices in the areas of food safety, animal care and sustainability," Sparboe's president and owner, Beth Sparboe Schnell, announced the step in her first public statement since an ABC News report that exposed alleged animal abuse and unsanitary conditions at the nation's fifth-largest egg producer.
Sparboe Schnell says she decided to create the task force "so that we can make our company better." The members of the new task force will be made up of three Sparboe employees and three outside advisors. Sparboe Schnell says the company recently passed four third-party animal welfare audits, confirming the company is in compliance with policies.
Animal rights groups remain unconvinced that this step will be enough. Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the U.S., told ABC News, "Passing 'third-party audits' means little when the standards of that audit are anemic at best. Sparboe doesn't need a task force to understand what it needs to do."
Pacelle pointed out that Sparboe remains the sole major egg producer in the nation that has lobbied against a joint push by the egg industry's main trade group and the Humane Society to improve the welfare of egg-laying hens. The United Egg Producers and the Humane Society worked together on a bill to be introduced in Congress that would increase the amount of space allotted to each hen. Sparboe is not a member of UEP and opposes the new standard.
Sparboe Schnell, whose company was started in 1954 by her late father, says she was "shocked and deeply disturbed" when seeing hidden-camera video shot by an undercover operative for the animal rights group Mercy for Animals that exposed conditions inside Sparboe facilities. The video first aired on ABC News. Sparboe Schnell maintained that it was the "wrongful acts of a handful of bad actors" and that all employees involved have been fired. McDonald's, Target and other retailers announced that they would stop buying eggs from Sparboe after learning the results of the ABC News investigation.
"At Sparboe Farms, we expect our employees to provide the best care possible and follow our animal care code of conduct," Schnell said. "Acts depicted in the footage are totally unacceptable, inconsistent with our values as farmers, and violate our animal care policies and procedures."
Nathan Runkle of Mercy for Animals said that Sparboe is ignoring the bigger issue of keeping hens in so-called "barren" battery cages, which he says prevent the birds from engaging in basic animal behavior. "This isn't a case of a few rotten employees, this is a matter of Sparboe subjecting every hen in its care to a lifetime of intensive confinement and deprivation. Sparboe's true actions on animal care issues don't line up with their PR rhetoric."
Sparboe Schnell also addressed an FDA warning letter sent to the company last week that detailed serious concerns after inspection of Sparboe's facilities. "Our team will continue to work with the FDA to successfully address the remaining concerns," Sparboe said, adding that the company has never had a single egg test positive for salmonella.