AUGUSTA, Maine – The Humane Society of the United States intended to call attention to alleged animal abuses at New England’s largest egg producer in Turner, Maine, but the state’s governor recently took issue with the animal rights group’s tactics — the use of undercover video.
In a strongly worded letter to HSUS CEO Wayne Pacelle, Gov. Paul LePage took the organization to task for using the undercover video to publicly rebuke the company in order to prompt an investigation instead of notifying his office directly.
“I am writing to express my disappointment with your recent media event regarding your ‘Request for Investigation of Shell Egg Production Facility in Turner, Maine,’” LePage wrote. “Because of the manner in which this was brought to our attention, I can only conclude you are more concerned with fundraising than you are about the animals involved; in this case, chickens.”
Pacelle said HSUS did notify state officials about conditions at the egg farm. In statement, he said LePage “…should check with his own Department of Agriculture since it received HSUS’s formal complaint about the egg factory in question five days in advance of the expose going public.” HSUS sent media alerts on June 6 and June 7.
The facility is operated by Hillandale Farms and owned by Austin “Jack” DeCoster, who entered a guilty plea on June 3, 2014, in federal court in connection with the distribution of adulterated eggs in interstate commerce. As part of a plea agreement, Austin DeCoster and Peter DeCoster, both executives at Quality Egg LLC, admitted the shell eggs distributed by the company were adulterated by Salmonella enteritidis. A 2010 foodborne illness outbreak linked to Quality Egg led to the recall of more than 500 million eggs. Hillandale Farms took over management of DeCoster’s egg farms in July 2015.
In the case of the egg facility in Turner, undercover video taken at the facility depicts hens kept in cramped conditions; birds with facial abnormalities and other problems. Hillandale issued a statement saying the company had invested in equipment and process upgrades in addition to expanding employee training.
“We reviewed the video, and we are investigating the practices in the barns where this footage may have been captured to ensure this is addressed immediately,” the company said. “The worker who shot the video did not meet Hillandale’s standard of care and is no longer employed by us.
“For example, it is our practice that any mortality be removed from cages within a day. We have engaged our farm veterinarian, food safety and quality assurance teams to act swiftly to assure that we meet or exceed all animal health and food safety guidelines. In addition, we have reached out proactively to ask the Maine Department of Agriculture to conduct an immediate inspection.”
HSUS noted that Hillandale sells eggs in surrounding states, including Massachusetts where the group is collecting signatures to for a ballot referendum that would ban the sale of eggs and other animal products that come from “extreme cage confinement.”
Maine Dept. of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry are conducting an investigation into alleged animal welfare violations at the facility. The agency said there is no evidence to suggest the eggs coming from the facility are unsafe for consumption.
“We have had no reports of food safety violations at the facility now or in the recent past,” the agency said in a statement. “State inspectors are routinely present at the site constantly monitoring and testing for any increased levels of disease pathogens. To date, our records are complete and do not show abnormal levels.”