An animal rights group released on Thursday a disturbing video of laying hens at a farm in Northern California that supplies eggs to Whole Foods and Organic Valley, among other retailers and distributors.
The hens in the video belong to Petaluma Farms, whose owners assert that the group is distorting and exaggerating the conditions under which its organic and conventional eggs are raised and sold under the brands Judy’s Family Farm and Rock Island. It also supplies eggs sold by Whole Foods stores in Northern California under the grocer’s 365 label, and it accounts for more than 4 percent of the eggs sold by Organic Valley.
This latest dispute over the treatment of animals used in food production provides an example of how prevalent the use of graphic videos as a publicity tactic is becoming. But these videos can also be mystifying, if not misleading, for consumers paying attention to the varying certification standards of humane treatment available to producers and companies selling animal-based food.
According to Wayne Hsiung, a founder of Direct Action Everywhere, the video was obtained by a small team of activists who climbed over a barbed wire fence into a Petaluma Farms facility at 700 Cavanaugh Lane, in Petaluma, Calif., about 10 times between the summer of 2013 and last fall.
Barns there house hens raised according to organic standards, producing eggs certified as organic, as well as laying hens that are raised conventionally, according to Steve Mahrt, the owner of Petaluma Farms.
The welfare of the organic birds at the Cavanaugh Lane facility, as well as a few organic hens housed at another Petaluma Farms location, has also met the standards of Certified Humane, an animal welfare certification program operated by the nonprofit group Humane Farm Animal Care.
While Mr. Hsiung criticized Whole Foods’ animal welfare policy, calling a five-step program “five steps of cruelty,” the egg producer took exception to the generalizations made by the group.
Mr. Mahrt said the video produced by Direct Action Everywhere “isn’t anywhere indicative of our operation — they had to go through 15 barns off and on over a year to find three chickens they could use to make their point in this video.”
He said he was confident that only three birds were featured in the video and that none were from his organic flock.
For his part, Mr. Hsiung said Direct Action Everywhere had found dozens of chickens in poor condition but had highlighted only a few in the video.
Still, experts debated exactly what was wrong with the hens shown in the video. Is the forlorn-looking, nearly bald hen a victim of feather pecking, a behavioral tic acquired by chickens in close quarters? Or is the hen simply molting?