To underscore two hot-button issues — animal cruelty and food safety — and to offer some evidence on why caged laying hens are more likely to be susceptible to Salmonella, the Humane Society of the United States put one of its undercover operatives into a Cal-Maine egg production facility in Texas.

What emerged from a just-ended, 28-day assignment for a Humane Society investigator is another gut-wrenching collection of digital video documenting conditions inside a production facility owned and operated by the nation’s largest and publicly-traded egg producer.


Sending its people undercover to collect evidence has become a signature strategy for the Humane Society.  Two years ago, it returned with pictures of “downer cows” being forced to slaughter by one of the biggest beef suppliers to the USDA’s National School Lunch Program.

This time, HSUS focused on caged chickens laying eggs.  The organization claims what it found are “documented, multiple abuses and food safety threats,” including:


— Birds trapped in cage wires, unable to reach food or water.  Cage wires, according to the HSUS, trap hens’ wings, necks, legs, and feet, causing other birds to trample on the weakened animals, usually resulting in a slow, painful death.

— Abandoned hens and live birds roaming outside their cages, some falling into the manure pits.

 — Injuries.  Birds had bloody feet and broken legs from cage wires.

— Overcrowding injuries.  Multiple birds were crammed into one cage, giving each hen only 67 square inches of cage space–less than a sheet of paper–on which to live for more than a year.

— Eggs covered in blood and feces.

“Our latest farm animal investigation documents inhumane treatment of laying hens and conditions that threaten food safety,” said Wayne Pacelle, HSUS president and chief executive officer.  “Time and again, we’ve found that these massive facilities caging hundreds of thousands of animals do not properly care for the birds or safeguard our food supply.”

Pacelle called upon the egg industry to “embrace cage-free” housing systems and move away from battery cage confinement methods.

Before releasing the video on the Cal-Maine facility, HSUS put out a collection of studies that it says show Salmonella rates are lower in cage-free egg operations  than in those using caged systems.  Those studies are listed by year with conclusions:

2010—20 times greater odds of Salmonella infection in caged flocks

2010—7.77 times greater odds of Salmonella in operations caging hens

2009—Significantly more risk of Salmonella in caged flocks

2008—7.88 to 21.52 times greater odds of Salmonella in operations caging hens

2008—More than twice the prevalence of Salmonella in operations caging hens

2008—59 percent greater prevalence of Salmonella (though not statistically significant)

2007—Up to 25 times greater odds of Salmonella in operations caging hens

2007—3.7 times greater prevalence of Salmonella in operations caging hens

2006—More than twice the prevalence of Salmonella in operations caging hens

2005—1.9 to 6.7 times greater risk of Salmonella in typical cage operations

“The only study ever published comparing risk at the consumer level was a 2002 prospective case-control study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology,” the Humane Society  says.  “People who recently ate eggs from caged hens had twice the odds of being sickened by Salmonella.”

Food Safety News invited comment from Jackson, MS-based Cal-Maine, but there was no response.  On its website, however, the egg producer posted a response to the Humane Society assertions, saying all of the company’s facilities “are operated in full compliance with existing environmental, health and safety laws and regulations and permits.” 

Cal-Maine said employees must agree to the “ethical treatment” of the hens, reporting any violations, and that the company offers all of its customers the choice of cage-free eggs.

Cal-Maine was up a tenth of a percent at $30.13 per share in late-in-the-day trading Wednesday.

Although Cal-Maine recalled a quarter million eggs over possible Salmonella contamination earlier this month, those eggs were from an Ohio supplier and were not produced in Cal-Maine facilities.  No illnesses have yet been associated with that recall.

Photographs used by permission from the Humane Society of the United States.