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Wegmans' egg controversy: a film, protest rallies, and a trial
An animal activist group called Compassionate Consumers has drawn a good bit of attention to Wegman's egg farm in upstate NY by sneaking in, filming the birds' living conditions, and producing a film called Wegmans Cruelty. The film, released last year, criticizes the cruel conditions for the chickens. Distribution of the film has helped the story attract media attention. Wegmans has fought back against the group's allegations. Compassionate Consumers has pressed on with its campaign through free downloads of the movie via its Web site, and by selling or giving away copies. Members and their supporters have also staged rallies outside of Wegmans stores. Three activists ended up facing charges last year related to their unauthorized entries into the farm. Two pleaded guilty to reduced charges. The maker of the film, went on trial May 2 on felony charges of burglary, trespassing and petit larceny.
Controversy hatching over Wegmans' egg farm:
Activists push to change how hens are housed
MATT GLYNN, Buffalo News
News Business Reporter
Inside a massive complex east of Rochester, 750,000 chickens lay eggs that are sold under Wegmans' brand name in its 70 supermarkets. The Wayne County farm, which is owned by Wegmans Food Markets, is off limits to visitors. But animal-rights activists have drawn attention to the farm by sneaking in and filming the birds' living conditions.
The unauthorized entries have pitted Rochester-based Compassionate Consumers against the family-owned supermarket chain. The dispute is being played out in a film, protest rallies and a trial of the one of the activists.
Members of Compassionate Consumers used their egg farm footage as the basis of a half-hour movie called "Wegmans Cruelty." The film, released last year, criticizes what the group calls cruel conditions for the chickens.
Wegmans has fought back against the group's allegations, defending the operation of the farm and pledging to listen to outside experts who evaluate the conditions there.
Compassionate Consumers has pressed its campaign through free downloads of the movie via its Web site, and by selling or giving away copies. Members and their supporters have also staged rallies outside of Wegmans stores, including in Buffalo, and outside of Wegmans' headquarters in Rochester.
The group wants Wegmans to switch from housing chickens in stacks and rows of wire cages known as "battery cages," to a "cage-free" setting that the group says is more humane. The members also hope to raise consumer awareness of how eggs are produced in big farms like the one Wegmans owns.
The farm at the center of the dispute is in Wolcott, roughly 130 miles from Buffalo. It has been operated for the chain by the Wadsworth family since opening in 1967.
The Wegmans family wanted its own egg farm to guarantee a supply of consistently high-quality eggs for its stores, said Jo Natale, a Wegmans spokeswoman. About 80 people work at the farm, which consists of 11 layer houses.
Compassionate Consumers says it asked for a tour but was turned down. Wegmans says it restricts access to protect the birds from disease.
In 2004, activists with the group snuck in late at night three times to record the living conditions. They asked law enforcement authorities to investigate based on the footage they shared, but no charges were brought against Wegmans.
But three activists ended up facing charges last year related to their unauthorized entries. Melanie Ippolito and Megan Cosgrove, both of whom appear in the film, pleaded guilty to reduced charges, said Ryan Merkley, campaign coordinator for Compassionate Consumers.
Adam Durand, the maker of the film, is scheduled to go on trial May 2 on felony charges of burglary, trespassing and petit larceny, Merkley said.
Distribution of the "Wegmans Cruelty" film has helped the story attract media attention. The New York Times wrote about the dispute, and the ABC program "Primetime" is expected to air a report on Friday, Merkley said.
"Wegmans Cruelty" uses videotaped images of the birds and interviews with Compassionate Consumers members to focus on conditions in the farm. Members report finding as many nine hens in a cage, leaving the birds little room to move. And with cages stacked on top of each other, the birds are exposed to feces falling from above, they say.
In the film, activists are shown pulling corpses out of cages amid live hens. They retrieve a few birds they say were in distress, and remove them from the farm in cartons. In the interviews, viewers are urged to either buy eggs labeled as "cage-free" or to consider avoiding eating eggs altogether.
Compassionate Consumers says more than 20,000 people have downloaded the free movie at http://www.wegmanscruelty.com, and more than 6,000 free copies have been distributed.
Wegmans has vigorously countered Compassionate Consumers' claims with messages on its own Web site, http://www.wegmans.com, and its stores are offering brochures to answer customers' questions, Natale said.
"We're very proud of our farm," Natale said. "We're very proud of our eggs. We do not abuse animals."
The chain also says it gives its customers a choice. Shoppers at Wegmans stores can buy eggs from other suppliers that are produced by cage-free hens, but Wegmans says the retail price is two to three times higher than the store's own brand.
Responding to some of Compassionate Consumers' criticisms, Wegmans contends that the mortality rate for chickens on the Wolcott farm is less than 8 percent. It says that the conditions are safer than a cage-free or "free range" setting that would expose the chickens to greater risk of death from predators, cannibalism, disease or extreme weather.
As for the movie, Wegmans on its Web site says: "Many statements made in the film are simply not true, and we have serious doubts as to whether all the images come from our farm."
Wegmans says it receives expert advice about conditions in the farm. Dr. Benjamin Lucio-Martinez of Cornell University's Poultry Diagnostic and Extension Service, visits the farm to monitor the hens' health, Natale said. The veterinarian is not paid by Wegmans and has provided services to the chain since before the dispute arose, she said.
Lucio was out of the country last week and could not be reached to comment. In a recent interview in the New York Times, he described the movie's harsh portrayal of conditions at the egg farm as "extremely overrated."
Last year, Wegmans starting receiving expert advice from Joy Mench, a professor of animal science at the University of California at Davis. Mench is paid by Wegmans and was chosen for her expertise in poultry behavior, Natale said.
"We believe we were doing a good job [with the farm], but we wanted to be certain we were doing a good job," Natale said.
Both Natale and Mench declined to comment on Mench's discussions with Wegmans. "Obviously, if she points out ways we can improve, we will improve," Natale said.
Mench said when she visited last fall, she found that the farm met the voluntary standards established by the United Egg Producers, which represents about 200 egg-producing companies.
Mench is part of an independent panel that developed the UEP's guidelines for "best-management practices" for hens housed in cages. Those standards cover areas such as the amount of space per chicken, air quality, beak trimming and feeding of the birds, she said.
Merkley noted that the standards were created by a private organization, and that no federal standards exist for the treatment of egg-laying hens.
Compassionate Consumers was formed in 2003, focusing on the treatment of animals in agriculture. The group encourages consumers to adopt a vegetarian diet or "seek out more humane animal products." Merkley said the group does not have a formal membership roll, but about 30 to 35 people are regularly involved in the group's activities.
Merkley said the group is "still optimistic" that Wegmans will change how it houses its chickens, based on the chain's reputation as a company that does things differently from its competitors. "They have been stubborn so far," he said.
Wegmans is also unusual among supermarket chains in that it owns an egg farm and can have direct influence on the issue, he added. "They have the power to affect the lives of 750,000 birds," he said.
The group wants Wegmans to house its birds in an enclosed, cage-free setting, to create what it says are more humane conditions that would still protect the chickens.
Compassionate Consumers claims that keeping the hens in a cage-free setting would have a minimal impact on the price that shoppers pay for eggs, and would give the company "a great [public relations] advantage."
"At the very least, we've educated a great number of consumers into where their food comes from," Merkley said.