Filthy conditions alleged at New England's biggest egg producer

Last Updated Jun 7, 2016 5:12 PM EDT

A year after dismissing as an "isolated incident" undercover footage showing unsanitary conditions and mistreated chickens at one of its facilities, Hillandale Farms is again under fire.

Graphic video showing disturbing and filthy circumstances at what the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) says is New England's largest egg-producing factory farm was released Tuesday. The video, taken during a "whistle blowing operation" in the spring, shows chickens "laying eggs for human consumption" on top of mummified hens in crowded cages, said Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society.

The footage showed hens trapped under the wires of their cages, or by their wings, necks and legs, unable to reach food or water.

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The Humane Society of the United States

Joann Lindenmayer, a specialist in veterinary medicine and public health, said the conditions portrayed in the video raise both animal welfare and public safety concerns.

"I am appalled as a veterinarian, and also about the safety to the public health," said Lindenmayer, formerly a professor at the Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine's department of infectious disease and global health. The new video, which showed flies and rodents in the egg-producing plant, illustrated "conditions and risk factors that lead to salmonella," said Lindenmayer, now the senior manager of disaster operations at Humane Society International, an affiliate of The HSUS.

The HSUS has filed a complaint with the Maine Department of Agriculture and asked the U.S. Department of Agriculture to investigate conditions at Hillandale, Shapiro said.

In a statement, Hillandale Farms said it was "investigating the practices in the barns where this footage may have been captured" and has asked the Maine Department of Agriculture to inspect the facility.

"The worker who shot the video did not meet Hillandale's standard of care and is no longer employed by us," the company said. "For example, it is our practice that any mortality be removed from cages within a day."

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HSUS

Last June, Costco Wholesale (COST) defended its egg supplier, Hillandale Farms of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in the aftermath of another Humane Society video, which showed chickens living in cramped cages, some alongside decaying or mummified chicken corpses.

Costco said in an email at the time its inspections "confirmed for us that Hillandale is behaving appropriately," adding "Hillandale has identified some areas in which it believes it can improve, including process improvement and more training for its employees."

The latest allegations involve a facility the HSUS claims is operated by Hillandale and owned by egg magnate Jack DeCoster, both at the center of a nationwide salmonella outbreak in 2010 that sickened an estimated 56,000 people nationwide and led to the recall of a half a billion eggs in one of the largest such recalls in U.S. history.

Hillandale and DeCoster share a "sordid" history, said Shapiro, referring in part to the salmonella outbreak that had both DeCoster and a son in 2014 pleading guilty for their roles, while a company they controlled pleaded guilty to bribing federal inspectors. The DeCosters are reportedly appealing their sentences.

Orland Bethel, whose son Gary now runs Hillandale, invoked his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination to avoid testifying before Congress about the outbreak.

Among the five largest egg producers in the country, Hillandale houses approximately 14 million hens in its factory farms located in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Maine and Connecticut.

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HSUS

In a blog post, Wayne Pacelle, the Humane Society's president and CEO, noted that major companies including McDonald's (MCD) and Walmart (WMT) in the last year have announced plans to switch to cage-free eggs, calling it a "repudiation of the battery-cage systems that have come to dominate egg production in the last half century."

Still, "as of today, nine out of 10 egg-laying chickens in the United States are still locked inside cages where they can't even spread their wings," Pacelle said. "We must accelerate the transition away from these inherently inhumane production systems and embrace a cage-free future."