Video: Animal rights group accuses company of abusing caged hens

SACRAMENTO -- The animal-rights group Mercy For Animals plans to release a video today shot by an undercover worker at a Merced County egg barn that shows hens crammed into cages, suffering from open sores and being handled roughly and stepped on by workers.

The video is an early attempt to build voter support for a November ballot measure that would make California the first state to ban the sort of cages that house most laying hens.

Steve Gemperle, one of the owners of Gemperle Enterprises, whose barns are shown in the video, called the footage a politically motivated attack on the egg industry. "It's trying to discredit us," he said Monday. "My company doesn't tolerate the abuse of animals. Abused animals don't produce eggs."

Gemperle said his company sells eggs to NuCal Foods Inc. of Ripon, which packages eggs for many major area food retailers.

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Nathan Runkle, executive director of Chicago-based Mercy For Animals, said the video aimed to "get Californians a glimpse behind the egg industry and show the inherent cruelty involved in battery cage facilities." Mercy For Animals, which has 16,000 members, advocates a vegan diet.

Runkle said his group will call on the Merced County district attorney to charge Turlock-based Gemperle Enterprises with neglect under state animal-cruelty law. Federal animal-welfare statutes do not apply to livestock, according to a U.S. Department of Agriculture spokesman.

Roughly 19 million egg-laying hens live in California. In a typical operation, eight birds share a 4-square-foot wire cage.

Animal behavior experts say this sort of housing stresses chickens by depriving them of three basic needs: a nest, a way to take a dust bath and a place to perch.

The November ballot initiative does not ban cages. It only requires that hens be allowed to fully extend their wings, which would force a shift to larger cages and lower hen densities or a switch to "cage-free" practices, in which thousands of hens share an open barn space.

Cage-free operations are designed to better meet hens' behavioral needs, but several studies have found they can lead to higher rates of mortality, illness and injury.

Gemperle's barns have been approved as humane under an egg-industry animal welfare program, according to a spokesman for United Egg Producers, a national industry group.