For many Californians, cage-free eggs bring to mind happy chickens running free in a grassy field.
But new video from animal activism group Direct Action Everywhere paints a very different picture.
The group’s activists recently rescued a hen they call “Ella” from Pleasant Valley Farms in Farmington, Calif. According to Pleasant Valley Farms, the farm produces 100 percent organic, cage-free eggs, which are then supplied to retailers including Costco.
The video shows cramped conditions, hens that have had their feathers plucked out and open wounds.
“You walk on the farm, and the smell hits you,” said Direct Action Everywhere activist Paul Darwin Picklesimer. “But nothing prepares you to enter the barn and see thousands of hens crowded together, on top of each other, distressed, covered in feces, with rotting bodies on the floor. It’s just a horrible, hellish situation.”
In 2008, more than 63 percent of Californians voted to pass Proposition 2, which mandated that all egg-producing hens would have to be kept in cage-free environments. The law took effect in 2015, as did AB 1437, which required that all eggs sold in the state also be cage-free.
Both the Humane League and the Humane Society of the United States supported the cage-free effort, saying that it would reduce cruelty to hens. Officials with Direct Action Everywhere say that’s not the case.
“If you’re in a cage-free farm and you’re injured, you can’t get back to your food or your water. You may be eaten alive,” Picklesimer said. “Whereas in a battery cage, life is totally horrible, but at least you might have access to food and water.”
Picklesimer further compared the two options to choosing between getting stabbed in the arm or the leg.
For its part, the Humane Society said that "cage-free doesn't necessarily mean cruelty-free, but it's a substantial improvement over battery cage confinement."
The Humane League also called cage-free farms a step in the right direction.
"Boycotting battery cage farms is a meaningful way to reduce animal suffering for a major egg purchasing institution. It's important for individual consumers to understand that these are still factory farms, though, and that reducing egg consumption in general is the most effective way for them to make a difference for egg-laying hens."
In a statement, Pleasant Valley Farms said it was “victimized” by Direct Action Everywhere, adding, “This video does not accurately show what truly goes on in our barns and appears to be staged for the production affect.”
Pleasant Valley Farms added that the activists who broke into the barn and rescued “Ella” were not wearing necessary protective clothing. As a result, the farm said it was ordered by third-party auditors and an outside veterinarian to “dispose of the entire flock to prevent any disease outbreak.”
Representatives for Costco, meanwhile, said that the retailer had re-inspected the barn and Pleasant Valley’s operations. “[B]ased on these inspections and prior audits we are comfortable with the animal welfare aspects of the operation,” a Costco spokesman said.
Darwin Picklesimer said he was shocked by Costco’s response.
“We are a nation of animal lovers and if this was happening to dogs or cats, we’d be up in arms. I think we should be educated and know what companies like Costco are trying to sell us,” Darwin Picklesimer said.
In Costco’s mission statement on animal welfare, the company says it subscribes to and supports the “Five Freedoms of Animal Well Being,” which include: freedom from fear and distress; freedom from discomfort; freedom from thirst and hunger; freedom to exhibit normal behavior; and freedom from pain, injury and disease.