Nov. 19, 2011 -- 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.
McDonald's Uses Non-Battery Cage Eggs in Europe
Activists, however, are now asking why McDonald's won't stop buying eggs from any producer that uses battery cages. "The reality is that McDonald's in Europe has already done away with the battery cage system," said Nathan Runkle. "They've shown that it can be done."
Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States says that McDonald's was once a leader in considering animal welfare when buying food for its restaurants, but "today, unfortunately the company is lagging." He said that Mc Donald's, "the biggest egg buyer in the country," is in the midst of a three-year evaluation of housing methods for hens, but has not yet acted.
In a statement to ABC News, McDonald's vice president for sustainability Bob Langert said "McDonald's cares about how our food is sourced and we have a long history of action and commitment to improve the welfare of animals in our supply chain."
Langert said the company is "participating in an unprecedented three-year study that compares traditional, cage-free, and enriched laying hen housing systems on a commercial scale. For our customers, that means we're working with scientists and suppliers to determine the most optimal hen housing method considering impacts on hen health and welfare, food safety, environment and other factors."
Shapiro said he is encouraged, however, that the Humane Society and United Egg Producers, the industry group that represents major egg farms, have come to an agreement about a standard that he says would improve housing for hens.
"For years, the animal welfare community and the egg industry have been at serious battle," said Shapiro. "Now, we've finally found common ground on at least one issue."
The two groups have cooperated on a bill that will be introduced in Congress by Rep. Kurt Schrader, D.-Ore., that would increase the space allotted to each bird, including room for bird behaviors such as nesting, perching and scratching. California and Michigan have already passed state laws banning "barren" battery cages, and the European Union has banned them starting next year.
In a statement, United Egg Producers said it had reached the agreement with the Humane Society "because we both believe that providing hens with more space is scientifically supported and will improve hen welfare." Sparboe is not a member of the United Egg Producers. Shapiro said that Sparboe's opposition to the agreement "is further evidence of just how out of step the company is on this issue."
Rep. Schrader told ABC News that the UEP and HSUS had come to him with "a brokered agreement for a national standard on cage sizes and made a compelling case."
"This represents a landmark shift in thinking," said Rep. Schrader, "and I take my hat off to both of them for putting aside their differences and working together to reach a deal that provides certainty for the farmers while providing improved conditions for the hens."
He also added that "as a veterinarian, the treatment and conditions of the hens highlighted in the ABC News report are disturbing to say the least," but said he didn't think it represented the egg industry as a whole.