Group says Turlock egg producer abuses chickens

Gemperle chief questions video

May 7, 2008 

TURLOCK -- An animal rights group claimed Tuesday that it has undercover video evidence of hens being abused at Gemperle Farms, a major egg producer.

The grainy footage shows close-ups of hens with festering sores and birds being roughly pushed and pulled in and out of cages. At one point, a worker stomps on a hen and then kicks it into what the video describes as a manure pit.

Company president Steve Gemperle questioned whether the video actually was shot at one of its farms.

"It's trying to discredit us," he told The Sacramento Bee. "My company doesn't tolerate the abuse of animals. Abused animals don't produce eggs."

The video was released by Mercy for Animals, based in Chicago. An investigator for the group got a job fixing cages and machines at Gemperle's egg-laying sites in Delhi and Hilmar, the group said. The video was shot with a hidden camera in January and February, it said.

"Unfortunately, we believe this abuse is likely rampant across the country," said Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals. "As long as these birds are treated like egg-producing machines, the abuse will likely continue."

Runkle said his group has undercover footage of Gemperle himself on the site, plus pay stubs and the names and faces of workers there.

"It's no surprise (Gemperle) is trying to distance himself from the heinous cruelty at his facility," Runkle said. "He's been caught red-handed."

The group asked the Merced County district attorney's office to investigate the accusations.

"We are obviously not going to launch a prosecution based on unsubstantiated video," District Attorney Larry Morse III said. "If we have evidence of mistreatment of animals, it should be investigated by the Sheriff's Department, and if found to be legitimate, then should be forwarded to our office."

The accusations emerged a few months after a similar undercover video was shot at a cattle processing plant in Chino.

The new charges come amid debate over a November ballot measure that would phase out the small hen cages used in most of the state's egg production. Backers of the measure say the birds have little room to move around. Defenders say they protect hens from disease and injury.

The video is part of an effort to tarnish the industry in advance of the vote, said Gary West, a Modesto egg producer and 2008 chairman of United Egg Producers, a national industry group.

"I think it's totally trying to influence people to think this is what we do in the industry, and it is not," he said.

West, president of J.S. West & Co., said he could not tell from the video whether it actually was shot at Gemperle. And he said the national group's animal welfare guidelines do not allow that kind of treatment.

"If we saw people handling birds like that, we would fire them immediately," he said.

Gemperle's barns have been approved as humane under the United Egg Producers guidelines, a spokesman for the group said.

Gemperle is a major player in the egg industry in the Northern San Joaquin Valley. The region produced an estimated 2.82 billion eggs in 2006, two-thirds of them from farms in Merced County, the state's leader.

Gemperle Enterprises supplies eggs to NuCal Foods Inc., the largest distributor of shell eggs in the western United States.

NuCal referred calls to Chris Myles, a spokesman for the Pacific Egg and Poultry Association.

"Such images and actions are inconsistent, out-of-practice and in violation of our high standards for animal welfare," Myles said in a written statement. "Our standards have been specifically developed by leading animal welfare scientists and researchers to promote and maintain humane, ethical and responsible animal care practices."

At Gemperle's company store on Lander Avenue, Atwater residents Elva Hinojosa and Edmira Molina de Polanco picked up a pallet of eggs.

"No, we wouldn't buy if (the hens were abused)," de Polanco said. "Of course not. We wouldn't want to eat them."

The Associated Press, The Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at mshea@modbee.com or 578-2391. Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or 578-2385.

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