Costco has been caught up in a controversy the last few weeks regarding egg laying hens in battery cages at one of their egg producers, Hillandale Farms. This all came about as a result of a video shot by an undercover activist from the Humane Society of the United States during his time “working” at a Hillandale Farms egg production site in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
So the nasty details of this video are pretty graphic and show truly deplorable living conditions for the hens. However, there is a bit of a cloud hanging over the video. The Humane Society of the United States is not what it seems (see below) and that, at least for me, taints the veracity of this video. I don’t dispute that hens reared in cages aren’t living a great life, by any means, but I have my doubts about the truthfulness of this video too. The person who filmed the video was hired, rather disingenuously on their part it seems, by Hillandale Farms as a primary caretaker to take care of the hens in a specific barn. The daily responsibilities of their role were to maintain the cleanliness of the barn, address any equipment issues like damaged cages, and remove hens that had died. So, from the video you can see that none of those job responsibilities seem to have been attended to in the month that this person worked at Hillandale Farms and the result is a filthy barn with dead chickens and it looks shockingly horrible in the video. So if those are your job responsibilities and the barn ends up looking like this, aren’t you the one that is exhibiting a repulsive level of animal cruelty?
Unfortunately, this video comes from an activist at the The Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and despite the name they aren’t the charity you think they are. The HSUS is not affiliated with your local Humane Society that provides shelter and care for animals. Further, very little of the annual donations given to HSUS actually go to helping animals — a number of sources claim it is just 1% that goes to shelters. The HSUS uses very deceptive practices to basically deceive or mislead donors that they are a parent organization of Humane Societies around the country but that just isn’t the case. As an an example, they used the dogs seized in the Michael Vick dog fighting case as a way of soliciting donations, saying that they were going to put donations toward helping the dogs. The reality is that HSUS were calling for the dogs to be euthanized and were not in charge of their care at all, and thus had no intention of using donations for the care of the dogs. They have been investigated and sued a number of times over the years, by various states and the IRS. They also do not get good ratings from charity watch groups. If you do a Google search you can find out lots of sordid details about the HSUS. If you are looking for a worthy animal shelter or charity to donate to, I suggest your local Humane Society, an animal rescue group for your favourite type of animal, or the American Humane Association, but definitely not the HSUS.
Admittedly, and rather unfortunately, Hillandale Farms, a subsidiary of Cal-Maine Foods, Inc., is not without issues. A Hillandale Farms facility in Iowa was responsible for over 1,500 cases of salmonella illness and recalled 550 million eggs in 2010 during a massive multi-state salmonella outbreak. Salmonella doesn’t directly have anything to do with the cages and there is still an ongoing debate over which housing method – cages or free range – is more apt to lead to a higher incidence of salmonella. People with knowledge of egg producing seem to conclude that both free range and cages can have a place in egg production and neither are necessarily better or safer for the chickens, and that it is more important how the facilities are managed.
I want to reiterate that I’m not saying hens in cages are awesome and fine, I’m saying that I wish this video had come from a source that was more trustworthy. I think the one thing this video clearly indicates is that Hillandale Farms needs a daily review of barn conditions conducted by someone else, like a caretaker manager of the employees managing each barn. These conditions were allowed to remain like this without oversight from another caretaker or manager in the month that the HSUS activist worked at the farm and that is something that Hillandale Farms should change immediately.
It is hard to believe that Hillandale Farms would have passed recent inspections if the conditions illustrated in the video were indicative of the way they normally run their facilities. In the Hillandale Farms statement regarding this video they say that they have had audits by the FDA, United Egg Producers, and the Pennsylvania Egg Quality Assurance Program (PEQAP), all of which report excellent results for this farm. So are all of these people lax and making things up or is this a bit of misleading video work from the HSUS? Also, Costco did their own investigation after this video was released and found these conditions were not the norm. Here’s a quote from the Costco response to the Hillandale Farms video:
Inspections that we have conducted there as recently as this week confirmed for us that Hillandale is behaving appropriately. Hillandale has identified some areas in which it believes it can improve, including process improvement and more training for its employees. We support these efforts.
In 2007, Costco agreed that cage free eggs were the way they wanted to move in the future but did not set a deadline for this change. Unfortunately, if you are Costco you sell a HUGE amount of eggs so this isn’t a goal that you can attain immediately for a number of reasons. The egg industry in the US is not set up for cage free egg laying at the scale that a retailer like Costco needs, and to make a switch with this kind of scope takes a lot of time and a lot of money. Estimates have put the cost of going from conventional cages to cage free to be at least $10 billion for the US egg industry and naturally that expense will be passed on to consumers. At this point Costco sells 50 million dozen eggs a year that are cage free; Costco doesn’t specify, but I think that this must just be in the US or North America. That is still just a small percentage of the eggs that they sell in a year and it is a long way to go from all of their eggs being cage free. (I’ve read somewhere that only 6% of the eggs they sell are currently cage free but I can no longer find the reference.) The other issue is that cage free eggs are generally more expensive than eggs produced by hens in battery cages and that change isn’t necessarily something that everyone can afford to make, so the lowest cost eggs are still in high demand at Costco and other supermarkets. There is a wide variation in the estimated consumer cost that switching all US egg production to cage free would have on a dozen of eggs, anywhere from an increase of 10 cents to 25 percent, depending on the cost projections used.
I love eggs and I have bought my eggs pretty much exclusively from Costco for well over a decade. The eggs that I get in the UK are from free range hens and I know in the US you can buy the Kirkland Signature Organic Eggs that are from cage free hens ($6.49 for 24 eggs in Kansas City Costco locations). The KS Organic Eggs come from a number of different farms that are Certified Humane by Humane Farm Animal Care, an international non-profit certification organization dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals in food production from birth through slaughter. I encourage anyone who feels really strongly about cage free hens to purchase the KS Organic Eggs and prove to Costco that they definitely have a need to increase their purchasing of eggs that are produced in a cage free environment.
For more information:
- CBS News: Safety issues raised as Costco won’t commit to cage-free eggs
- Costco: Customer Service: Hillandale Farms / Humane Society Egg Response
- Food Safety News: Costco Egg Supplier Under Scrutiny for ‘Inhumane Treatment’ of Chickens
- Food Safety News: Costco, Hillandale Farms Dispute Allegations of ‘Inhumane Treatment’
- Food Safety News: Humane Society Files Complaint with FDA Against Costco Egg Supplier
- Food Safety News: Caged or Cage-Free? Debate Continues on Safest Method to House Laying Hens
- Hillandale Farms: Egg Safety & Hen Care Statement
- Seattle Times: Humane Society alleges Costco egg vendor treats birds cruelly
- 10 News: Costco won’t commit to cage-free eggs
- Huffington Post: Please Don’t Give to the US Humane Society if You Care About Pets
- Activist Facts: Humane Society of the United States
- Nathan J. Winograd: HSUS Celebrates the Killing of Animals
- Wikipedia: The Humane Society of the United States
[Updated July 15, 2015 to add a photo of KS Organic Eggs as well as information about price.]