Transcript for Investigation into Hillandale Farms, One of US's Largest Egg Producers
Tonight, breakfast confidential. An investigation into what life is like for chickens at one of the biggest egg producers in the country raising new questions about the most important meal of dat day. ABC's David Wright puts one company in the hot seat for our series "Night line investigates." Reporter: This is the image hill and dale farms presents to the world. A promotional video showcasing the pristine conditions at its massive chicken coops in rural Pennsylvania where they ship eggs around the country to retail giants like costco. Our hens are healthy and the eggs at the peak of their quality. Reporter: This is hidden camera footage conducted by an undercover investigator from the humane society of the U.S. Their investigator worked as a day laborer at hill and dale for three weeks this spring. You wouldn't see this kind of dust and dirt if they were cleaning it every day. Reporter: Wayne passelli is a humane society spokesman. Here they're bunched up and they're falling because this bird got stuck in the cage wire. The birds are mummified. The birds have to have been in there awhile. Warning bells go off for me, they should be going off for the fda. We've been reporting on the massive recall -- Reporter: In 2010 a salmonella outbreak sickened more than 1,900 people. Federal food safety officials traced it to several big egg farms. Congress held hearings on the outbreak. Here's my question, and again, you're under oath, sir. Reporter: Hill and dale's then-president refused to answer questions. I respectfully decline to answer the question based on the protection afforded me under the fifth amendment. The image of the CEO of a company getting up in front of congress and taking the fifth doesn't exactly inspire confidence. We weren't running the operation at that time. This is a new regime? That's there now, absolutely. Reporter: Jeff martin is a hill and dale manager. The company was considerably more forthcoming with us. After the humane society shared its footage with "Nightline" we brought it straight to hill and dale who agreed a week later to give us a tour. Is this the same building that we see in that video? Yes. You've had a chance to clean it up a little bit. A little bit, a little bit. Taking us inside some of their giant hen houses near gettysburg. As the manager of this facility, what did you think, watching those videos? I was disturbed. I was disturbed because it doesn't represent what we are. I don't see what was in that video. There were parts of the video that saddened me. There were parts that made me angry. So we launched a full-scale investigation as to what happened. Reporter: The hen house seemed to be cleaned up significantly. The feathers cleared off, for the most part. The dust swept. No rodents on the floor. No piles of broken eggs. No swarms of flies. And the chickens, 120,000 of them in this one barn, clucking away. Is there anything that you saw in that video that if allowed to persist could lead to another outbreak of salmonella? Can I have a minute? Just give him a second. Is there anything you saw in that video that if it were persistent could lead to another outbreak of salmonella? Yes. What would that be? Any of the -- a lot of the things. Reporter: Dr. Gregory martin, a poultry educator brought here by hill and dale, disagrees. As bad as it looked it wasn't as bad as -- it wasn't a threat to the safety of those eggs. Reporter: They face quarterly inspections from state agriculture officials and hill and dale has passed those inspections, none of which is reflected on that video. If I only saw that video and I wasn't in the business, it would concern me. But what I can assure you, the video isn't a true representation of our program. We have the safest food safety program in the industry. Are you worried that one of your big customers, costco, could see something like this this video and think twice about buying your eggs? Yes, I am worried about their reaction to the video. Because hill and dale, we are very proud of our program. Reporter: David Atchison is an independent food safety consultant. He agrees the humane society video does not give a complete picture of conditions at hill and dale's facilities, but he says it's troubling. Video is by definition a snapshot in time. Reporter: He points to dead birds, the ones being pried off the cages. When you see evidence that some of those carcasses from the dead birds have been there for what could appear many days if not weeks, then that clearly raises concern. They can gussy things up and give a white-glove tour, but in general, this sort of facility has fundamental problems. And we think that certainly a major company like costco should not be associating with it. Reporter: You see the humane society has another agenda. They want to pressure big retailers like costco not to buy any eggs from farms that keep hens in cables, which they consider cruel. Costco's the third-biggest food seller in the united States. It told us eight years ago that it was going to opt for cage-free production. And only use suppliers that were going to produce those cage-free eggs. Reporter: Costco wholesale says it is committed to the ethical treatment of animals and says that while hill and dale has identified some areas in which it believes it can improve, it believes that hill and dale is behaving appropriately. Folks at hill and dale took us to a second hen house. The equipment looks brand-new. They say they're in the process of upgrading that first hen house to be more like this one. A chicken coop as long as a football field. 250,000 hens in this one building alone. And there are five of these barns on-site. A chicken city. Population, 1.5 million. You've got one, two, three, four, five, and another five all the way up there. This is a New York City highrise. For chickens. Reporter: Row upon row of hens laying eggs. This is their life for 18 months. The amount of space each hen has smaller than a standard sheet of writing paper. We don't tend to think a lot about where our food comes from. Yet it stands to reason that that's what it takes to produce the amount that we as a nation consume. Years ago there was concern about cholesterol. Now eggs are an energy food. So consumption per individual is up. Reporter: The argument there being that a facility like this is not just cruel to the hens, but also if it's unsanitary, dangerous for humans too. When a biological organism is severely stressed they're more susceptible to the onset of disease. Plus when they're overcrowded, you have more pathways for transmission. It seems like we're talking about two different things here, though. One, you're interested in animal welfare. But two, you're talking here about food safety. And it doesn't seem like there's necessarily a connection. When you mistreat animals and you stress them and overcrowd them, you often produce food safety issues. Reporter: The proof, they say, is right there in that hidden camera footage. Hill and dale farms disputes that. I see this as attack. We would welcome, if somebody wanted to come and see our farm and see how we treated the birds, 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. Are you saying he was too busy filming and not doing his job? If the goals are to produce safe quality food in an animal-friendly environment, we're all for that. If the agenda is to get people to stop eating eggs, chicken, spare ribs, steak? It's a whole different animal. Reporter: Next time you cook breakfast, it is certainly food for thought. I'm David Wright for "Nightline" in gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
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