TURLOCK -- Gemperle Farms accused an animal rights group of staging an undercover video that shows employees abusing hens, claiming that the footage was manipulated and workers were coerced.
"We have reviewed the video images claiming to represent our practices, and find the accusations to be a staged, vicious attack on our reputable company," Gemperle Farms said in a statement released Monday.
"We are continuing to investigate and now know our employees were coerced by the activist to engage in behavior that is against our high standards for hen welfare for the sole purpose of filming a sensational video," it said.
Gemperle family members were not available for comment Monday. The video was released last week by Mercy for Animals, a Chicago-based activist group.
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Nathan Runkle, executive director of Mercy for Animals, defended the video Monday as "100 percent" authentic. He said that if Gemperle Farms did not retract its statement, the group would sue for libel.
The group's lawyer sent Gemperle Farms a letter giving it until 8:30 p.m. today to make the retraction.
An investigator for Mercy for Animals 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.
The 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 a hen and kicks it into what the video describes as a manure pit.
Gemperle claims the most sensational segments of the video were staged, and the footage was manipulated by speeding up the film so that it appeared more forceful and extreme.
"Regarding one of the scenes, one of our entry-level employees has stated that he was directed by the activist to perform certain acts while being filmed," the company said.
When the video surfaced last week, company president Steve Gemperle questioned whether the footage was shot at one of his family's farms.
Runkle said Monday's statement appears to be an admission by Gemperle Farms that the footage was shot at its facility.
"The footage tells the story. It is no surprise that the farm is resorting to blatant lies now that the footage of horrific animal cruelty has come to light and they are losing business," Runkle said.
Trader Joe's announced last week that it will stop carrying eggs from Gemperle Farms because of the abuse allegations.
Gemperle is a major egg producer 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's headquarters is in Turlock. It has egg farms in several valley locations and had more than 1 million hens as of 2006. The operation, founded in 1950, employs about 180.
Mercy for Animals has asked the Merced County district attorney's office to investigate.
Gemperle Farms said that it "has always maintained the highest science-based standards for animal care on our farms," with monitoring by management and independent veterinarians on a routine basis.
"We do not tolerate abuse of our hens," it said.
Bee staff writer Christina Salerno can be reached at email@example.com or 238-4574.