While the hens are not in cages, the video shows them crowded together, covered in feces and blood, struggling to breathe and attacking and even eating one other. “It appears her head has been torn off,” an activist describes after finding the body of a dead bird among the living ones.
DxE, which has filmed similar undercover videos before, said it linked the eggs, sold under Costco’s in-house Kirkland brand, to Pleasant Valley Farms through identifying information on the packaging. The facility has up to 150,000 birds, according to organizer Wayne Hsiung, who called the video “one of the toughest investigations I’ve done in 15 years as an animal rights activist.” He said it showed the designation “cage free” does not appropriately address concerns about animal welfare.
“What we see in our investigation of cage-free farms, they replace wire cages with flesh cages,” he said. The birds “can’t turn around. They’re confined in effectively the same way as in a battery cage” — that is, the bird cages used on many factory farms.
Hsiung also said the rate of “cannibalism” — birds eating each other — was higher at cage-free farms compared to other farms because the animals fight each other for space. “It’s a terrible way to die,” he said.
A representative from Pleasant Valley Farms said it was working with Costco and independent auditors to resolve the issues but declined further comment.
In a statement, Costco said it had reviewed the materials. “They appear to concern one barn of laying hens at one of the many independent suppliers from which Costco procures cage-free conventional and organic eggs,” executive vice president Ron Vachris said. “We have reinspected the barn and other operations of this supplier, and based on these inspections and prior audits, we are comfortable with the animal welfare aspects of the operation.”
The multibillion-dollar company followed in the footsteps of McDonald’s and other big retailers last year and committed to going cage-free. At the time, it said more than 25 percent of the eggs it sold were already cage-free.
“In calendar 2016, we expect to sell over one billion cage-free eggs,” the company said in a statement reported by Food Business News. “We are working with our suppliers toward a complete and sustainable transition to a cage‐free supply chain. This transition, however, will take time because currently over 90 percent of the [industry’s] supply of eggs is from caged hens and because other retailers and restaurants are also moving to cage-free requirements, placing greater demands on the limited supply.”
DxE’s video is “the first exposé of a cage-free egg farm since the industry turned to cage-free late last year,” Hsiung wrote in an email earlier this week.
Other animal-rights activists have defended cage-free farming, saying that while far from perfect, it is better than battery cages.
Paul Shapiro, the vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States, said nine out of 10 chickens in the United States live in battery cages. Those confine birds to a space about as large as a piece of paper for the duration of their lives.
“Cage-free doesn’t necessarily mean cruelty-free, but it’s a substantial improvement over battery cage confinement,” Shapiro, who reviewed the DxE video, said via email. “Rather than being immobilized their whole lives, cage-free birds at least can walk, perch, lay their eggs in a nest and more.”
Lewis Bollard, a program officer at the Open Philanthropy Project, an advocacy group with animal-rights initiatives, called battery cages “one of the cruelest devices that have ever been invented in terms of the treatment of animals,” but he said “cage free” doesn’t give farmers a pass.
“Although we are pushing to move away from battery cages, it doesn’t mean we are in favor of anything goes,” said Bollard, who did not review the video. “We want to see move toward good practices on the cage-free side, too.”
Some have previously questioned the motives of DxE. After the group uncovered alleged mistreatment of turkeys supplied to Whole Foods for Thanksgiving last year, the company accused it of pushing a far broader agenda.
“It is important to understand the mission of animal activist groups like this one isn’t farm animal welfare but rather a total end to animal agriculture and meat consumption,” Whole Foods spokesman Michael Silverman said at the time. “Everything they say, do and show is produced with that specific goal in-mind.”
Hsiung said DxE is just trying to show the nation where its food comes from.
“When Americans see this sort of misconduct, this sort of torture, they want it to stop,” he said.