An animal rights group publicized a video Tuesday showing unwanted chicks being tossed alive into a grinder at an Iowa plant and accused egg hatcheries of being "perhaps the cruelest industry" in the world.
The undercover video was shot by Chicago-based Mercy for Animals at a hatchery in Spencer, Iowa, over a two-week period in May and June. The video was first obtained Monday by The Associated Press.
"We have to ask ourselves if these were puppies and kittens being dropped into grinders, would we find that acceptable?" asked Nathan Runkle, the group's executive director, at a news conference in Des Moines. "I don't think that most people would."
The group said that tossing male chicks, which have little value because they can't lay eggs or be raised quickly enough to be raised profitably for meat, into grinders is common industry practice. United Egg Producers, a trade group for U.S. egg farmers, confirmed that.
The hatchery is owned by West Des Moines-based Hy-Line North America and is one of many operations in Iowa, the nation's leading egg producer.
The video, shot with a hidden camera and microphone by a Mercy for Animals employee who got a job at the plant, shows a Hy-Line worker sorting through a conveyor belt of chirping chicks, flipping some of them into a chute like a poker dealer flips cards.
These chicks, which a narrator says are males, are then shown being dropped alive into a grinding machine.
In other parts of the video, a chick is shown dying on the factory floor amid a heap of egg shells after falling through a sorting machine. Another chick, also still alive, is seen lying on the floor after getting scalded by a wash cycle, according to the video narrator.
Hy-Line said the video "appears to show an inappropriate action and violation of our animal welfare policies," referring to chicks on the factory floor.
But the company also noted that "instantaneous euthanasia" -- a reference to killing of male chicks by the grinder -- is a standard practice supported by the animal veterinary and scientific community.
Company spokesman Tom Jorgensen said Tuesday an investigation was continuing, and once it's completed the company would release more information.
Runkle acknowledged that his group's ultimate goal was to get people to stop eating eggs. He said he believe many would refuse to eat eggs if they knew what happened to male chicks.
"The egg industry is perhaps the cruelest industry on the face of the planet," Runkle said.
Mercy for Animals also sent letters to the nation's 50 largest grocery store chains, including Walmart, Whole Foods, Safeway, Harris Teeter and Trader Joe's, asking them to include a label on egg cartons that says, "Warning: Male chicks are ground-up alive by the egg industry."
A spokesman for United Egg Producers called the proposal "almost a joke." Spokesman Mitch Head said Mercy for Animals had no credible authority, as well as questionable motives. "This is a group which espouses no egg consumption by anyone -- so that is clearly their motive."
Mercy for Animals estimated 200 million male chicks are killed a year, which the United Egg Producers also confirmed.
"There is, unfortunately, no way to breed eggs that only produce female hens," Head said. "If someone has a need for 200 million male chicks, we're happy to provide them to anyone who wants them. But we can find no market, no need."
Using a grinder, Head said, "is the most instantaneous way to euthanize chicks."
There is no federal law that ensures the humane euthanasia of animals on farms or hatcheries, according to Jonathan Lovvorn, vice president and chief counsel of the Humane Society of the United States.
The Humane Society also says that virtually all egg farms, even those that sell cage-free eggs, get their hens from hatcheries that kill their male chicks.
Hy-Line says on its Web site that its Iowa facility produces 33.4 million chicks. Based on that figure, Mercy for Animals estimates a similar number of male chicks are killed at the facility each year. Hy-Line did not comment on that estimate.
Runkle, of Mercy for Animals, said most people would be shocked to learn that 200 million chicks are killed a year.
"Is this justifiable just for cheap eggs?" he said.
As to more humane alternatives to disposing of male chicks, Runkle said the whole system is inherently flawed.
"The entire industrial hatchery system subjects these birds to stress, fear and pain from the first day," he said.
On the Web:
Mercy for Animals video: http://www.mercyforanimals.org/hatchery
Hy-Line International: http://www.hyline.com/