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Bringing Accuracy and Context
to Animal Journalism

New York Times Chickens Out on Brutal Video

Rated: D

Article Review:

"Animal Rights Group’s Video of Hens Raises Questions, but Not Just for Farms"

New York Times  -  Jan 09, 2015

Early last week the animal activist group Direct Action Everywhere released a harrowing video based on an undercover investigation of Petaluma Farms, a Northern California operation that supplies eggs to Whole Foods and Organic Valley. In it, hundreds of chickens are shown crammed into sheds and suffering several obvious ailments, including respiratory distress and being stuck in feces.

Wayne Hsiung, a former Northwestern University law professor and co-founder of Direct Action Everywhere, began breaking into farms while working as a corporate lawyer back in the early 2000s. But this particular investigation was a departure for him because it revealed abuse on a farm that’s cage free, organic, and Humane Certified. 

He summarized what he encountered in these terms: “crowding, stress, filth, disease, and, finally, mutilation and death.” This is not what your average Whole Foods shopper has in mind when she picks up a carton of Organic Valley eggs. But it’s exactly what’s happening on the farm, and consumers have a right to know about it.

And the New York Times had an opportunity to inform them. Indeed, Direct Action Everywhere’s investigation was evidently significant enough for the Times to cover it (in its business section, oddly enough)—and the paper deserves credit for lending the matter some ink.

The problem, though, is that the Times blew it. The story—as reported by Stephanie Strom and Sabrina Tavernise—spends more time questioning the use of undercover video footage than highlighting the brutality of its content. Ironically, while the article implicitly challenges the legitimacy of Direct Action Everywhere’s undercover images, it evidently has no problem including (without critical commentary) promotional material from Petaluma Farms (such as a link to its Facebook page with videos on it, now dead.)

Most of the Times piece is dedicated to allowing the industry to defend itself rather than driving home the details of the video, which it calls “disturbing” in its lead, but never indicates why. Before offering any of the video’s content—which, as you can see for yourself, is horrific—the article instead focuses on this point: “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.” With that, the tables are turned and the investigation is under scrutiny.

When the piece gets to the video per se, it dodges the details once again, noting, “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. . .” It then turns the mic over to the farm’s owner, who the reporters paraphrase in these terms: “He said he was confident that only three birds were featured in the video and that none were from his organic flock.”

Three birds? Of course, that claim is absurd—as you can tell from the video itself. And that brings me to another problem with the article: it didn’t include the video when the story ran. Doing so, naturally, would have offered direct evidence that Petaluma was lying, thereby requiring a major shift in the story’s focus, one that would have to be highly critical of Petaluma, Whole Foods, Organic Valley, and Humane Certified—all of whom benefit from the abuse Direct Action Everywhere documents. Evidently it’s safer and easier to go after a small group of activists who have little power than a phalanx of corporate interests.

There’s so much more that’s wrong here. The piece paraphrases Hsiung as saying:  “Direct Action Everywhere had found dozens of chickens in poor condition but had highlighted only a few in the video.” But Hsiung told me in an interview yesterday that this was a blatant misquote—something he directly told the reporters when he saw this wording during the fact-checking process. He wrote in an email to the reporters, “no, that’s not accurate,” noting that hundreds of birds were highlighted as being in distress, not “a few.”

The reporters acknowledged his email but never made the change.

There are also sins of omission. When it comes to the Humane Certified label, the reporters paraphrase Adele Douglass of Humane Certified: “Ms. Douglass said Petaluma Farms’ certification had expired in June. She said it had applied for recertification but, because of staffing issues at her organization, the inspection required to renew the certification has not yet been done.” But they never note the critical point that the farm continued to apply the label, and add value on its basis, after expiration.

And, finally, there’s just plain old implausibility. Confronted with the reality of birds who have been feather-pecked into baldness as a direct result of confinement-induced aggression, the reporters wonder, “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?” Interesting that they bend over backwards to challenge an obvious physical reality of confinement but treat the film that exposed that reality with such trumped-up skepticism.

In the end, this article is deeply skewed toward an industry-sympathetic perspective. Petaluma Farms, which is essentially a factory farm that happens to produce organic eggs, was busted fair and square by activists who have graphic evidence to prove it. The Times, which gets credit for even bothering to cover the issue, went to great lengths to ignore the obvious.

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26 Comments on New York Times Chickens Out on Brutal Video

  1. I will follow up with Whole Foods on this one.

  2. Elaine Livesey-Fassel // January 10, 2015 at 7:52 pm // Reply

    This account of the gross abuse of chickens at Petaluma Farms is deeply disturbing. I deplore the white-washing of such unredeeming cruelty by the so called ‘FARM” and its peddling of mindless public relation drivel which no-one buys other than those entities who profit from such appalling abuse. The same is true of my opinion of ANY entity that supports such perversity. Thank you for this important coverage!

  3. Shocking—but sadly, shocking AS USUAL. One more bit of proof that our entire society is built around one thing and one thing only,despite what we THINK we live in. It’s PROFIT. SO naturally a newspaper desperate for profit goes out of its way to stick up for a “humane organic” farm that is also desperate for profit.

  4. I wanted to also thank Wayne Hsuing and Direct Action Everywhere for doing the very important and hard work they, and other organizations like them, do to expose to the American people the conditions these innocent animals are being forced to bear. Is it so much to ask that animals raised for our food must be treated humanely and live a decent life and social life and when it is their time that they are slaughtered quick and as painlessly as possible? And, perhaps people need to think about cutting down on eating meat. It saves the environment, the animal and it is better for you.

  5. Incredible writing, James. Thank you!

  6. This is so SPOT ON!!! Thank you so much for writing this!!!

  7. Deborah Larcom // January 11, 2015 at 12:51 am // Reply

    Thank you Wayne Hsuing for exposing this travesty.It’s shameful that Whole Foods can call this “humane” treatment of animals.

  8. Great article!

  9. Great. Has this post been sent to Stephanie Strom and Sabrina Tavernise, and NYT business ed., so they can get feedback and learn, and produce at least a B+ article next time?

  10. Busted fair and square? I don’t think so. It’s likely that it wasn’t a hen house producing eggs for Whole Foods. Organic certifications and third-party humane certifications don’t necessarily encompass whole farms. It’s possible for a farmer to have both organic and conventional production. An organic inspector would only inspect the organic portions of it. It’s the same for third-party humane certifications, certifications are product specific. DxE contends that this is a “Certified Humane Farm”, but it’s likely that that certification was only obtained for flocks producing organic table eggs on this farm. The video shows a hen house with a lot of roosters. It was a breeder flock to produce hatching eggs, not table eggs and was likely neither certified humane or organic. The bottom line is that DxE called out Whole Foods and the Certified Humane program by documenting conditions in a breeder hen house that wasn’t producing table eggs for Whole Foods and wasn’t likely Certified Humane.

  11. Louise Veilleux // January 11, 2015 at 8:11 pm // Reply

    Please stop such cruelty !

  12. prioritarian // January 11, 2015 at 9:46 pm // Reply

    I think it’s important to note that this cognitive dissonance is hardly unique to Whole Foods. IMO, most “natural foods” stores and co-ops humane-wash factory-farmed foods via advertising and/or signage.

  13. Your webpage says “Bringing Accuracy and Context to animal Journalism”. The New York Times did an outstanding job of telling both sides of the story. Your summary says that DxE “revealed abuse on a farm that’s cage free, organic, and Humane Certified”. More accurately, they documented a conventional (non-organic) breeder house that wasn’t Certified Humane. Their message is already stretched thin for the average person who sees them dressed as burglars, climbing over fences, and trespassing on private property. Their credibility was shot when it was found that the house they highlighted was neither organic, producing eggs for Whole Foods, nor Certified Humane. Where’s the accuracy in your reporting?

    • James McWilliams // January 12, 2015 at 11:31 am // Reply

      Hi, Mike,
      Did you speak to DxE? They visited 15 houses, out of 28. Documentation did not come from one house, but all of them. The eggs from hens in these barns indeed went to WF and Organic Valley. The point has long been known that the organic label has nothing to do with humane regulations, and the video footage proved that. As far as for what the average person sees, I can’t help that, but the person who led the investigation is a lawyer who once worked with the largest corporate law firm in the world and was a professor of law at Northwestern.

      • Let me try explain a little further. This is a diversified poultry farm that could be selling eggs (maybe even meat) from various production models to various markets at various price ranges, e.g., organic eggs, conventional cage free eggs, pastured eggs, perhaps meat birds of various production models. In addition he could have breeder flocks to produce layer hen chicks, or breeder flocks to produce chicks for meat production. Certain enterprises on this farm could be certified organic or have a third-party humane certifications depending upon the specific production model and market. These enterprises could be alongside other production models that are not certified or inspected for particular programs. You cannot make a blanket statement that eggs from any particular house were eggs being sold to Whole Foods or Organic Valley without knowing the particulars. I am somewhat familiar with what I believe is TWO hen houses that are in production with OV, they are of entirely different construction and it’s my understanding that they were specifically built to meet OV’s high standards. They were not the hen houses shown in photos or the video in question, nor were the eggs from the hen house shown likely being sold as organic table eggs to anybody.

        • James McWilliams // January 12, 2015 at 1:58 pm // Reply

          Very helpful indeed. I’m going to look deeper into this before making any changes, but I believe Wayne asked about these supposed houses of “an entirely different construction” and was told, maybe by HC, that they (or it) was hidden. In any case, thanks.

        • James McWilliams // January 12, 2015 at 2:08 pm // Reply

          Check out this suit against Petaluma. My interpretation is that the entire farm was to be certified humane: file:///C:/Users/jm71/Downloads/Glover_FinalSettlementOrder_29Jan2014.pdf. I imagine the same is true for organic. Otherwise, you could just raise one bird organically and humanely and get the labels, no? What am I missing?

          • He may have only obtained humane certification for the eggs in question in the lawsuit, his own farm brands, e.g., “Judy’s Eggs”. It likely would not have included any breeder flocks that weren’t producing table eggs for retail and may not have included eggs produced for WF or OV since they have their own standards and probably don’t rely on third-party certification (and weren’t the eggs in question in the lawsuit). Organic and humane certifications aren’t necessarily an umbrella for every enterprise on a farm. It would only include the products and methods that the owner is willing to pay for certification for and market as such. If he only had one organic hen, he would only have one organic egg to sell each day. I could have 5,000 organic laying hens and 40 acres in organic crops, but have conventional egg and crop production nearby. An organic certifier would only inspect the livestock and crops I am requesting certification for and would have no reason to inspect other farm enterprises owned by me. A certification inspector will always ask if there are non-qualifying products being produced on the same farm, as the various certifications require that production be segregated. For example, organic certification would require separate storage facilities for organic and conventional production on the same farm and appropriate tracking and record keeping to ensure products aren’t mixed. The same goes for humane certifications.

  14. The person who led the investigation knows very little about egg production. He highlighted a house that had 10,000 hens and 1,000 roosters. That’s a breeder house that produces fertile eggs for hatching chicks, not organic table eggs. Breeder flocks aren’t usually certified organic nor have third-party humane certification because they aren’t producing organic table eggs for retail sale, hence eggs from this house wouldn’t be going to WF or OV, they would be going to a hatchery. Both the egg producer and reps from Certified Humane said in interviews that the houses highlighted weren’t hen houses in organic production and weren’t part of the Certified Humane program. That jibes with what I saw in the video.

    • James McWilliams // January 12, 2015 at 1:31 pm // Reply

      Your distinction is interesting and I’ll definitely look into it. But consumers should still be shocked to learn that a farm selling organic eggs and sporting a Humane Certified label allows such conditions to occur, no matter what barn it happens in, and no matter what stage in the production process it occurs.

      • It’s hard to judge without seeing the complete picture. Birds do get sick and birds die, it’s inevitable, but that’s not necessarily indicative of the condition of the whole flock or across an entire farm. The bald hens that were pictured were surrounded by healthy looking birds. Those hens were being bullied by others. Chickens can be vicious and are aggressive to smaller, weaker hens or hens that are distinctive colors from the rest of the flock. Bullied hens, sick hens, and dead hens should be removed from the flock on a daily basis, but should only be a very small percentage of a flock. (The owner of the farm in question stated that the activists had to make 10 visits to find the birds they highlighted, and that was through numerous houses). The crowding that was highlighted was the birds on their roosts at night. They don’t evenly space themselves out and make themselves comfortable like people do. They cram together (snuggle together?) in large groups at night. What was not shown was all of the empty floor space since most of the birds were roosting for the night. The worst thing I saw was the caked up manure underneath the roosts. The litter should be maintained in better condition. It may have been in better condition in other parts of the house, away from the roosts where the birds deposit a lot of droppings at night, but we didn’t see that. We only saw the worst of the worst, out of context. Three sick birds out of a flock of 11,000 is not unusual (find 11,000 children and assess their health). Show me the entire hen house; the stocking density, the perches and roosts, the nest boxes, the litter and scratch areas, the water and feeding systems, the windows, the condition of the flock as a whole and I would be able to tell you how well it is managed. Selective video in a dark house tells me nothing of the methods used there.

  15. John T. Maher // January 12, 2015 at 1:41 pm // Reply

    This paragraph was trenchant in that t gets to the heart of the deception and economic motivation to do so:

    “When it comes to the Humane Certified label, the reporters paraphrase Adele Douglass of Humane Certified: “Ms. Douglass said Petaluma Farms’ certification had expired in June. She said it had applied for recertification but, because of staffing issues at her organization, the inspection required to renew the certification has not yet been done.” But they never note the critical point that the farm continued to apply the label, and add value on its basis, after expiration.”

    Without turning this into an advertorial, my associates and I would be wiling to evaluate this as a class action suit/ CA private attorney general action on behalf of deceived consumers as part of our Animal Law practice which seeks out animal social justice issues. Dara Lovits, whom I admire, has done such work on behalf of hens in Pennsylvania. What you say, support egg eaters? Well support any marginal progress, including the promise of “organic” as marginally better and more humane than outright factory farm. Many animal welfare lawsuits include a meat eating plaintiff for standing purposes. So I say, hold the producer accountable and, one of the means for such redress is through laws aimed at protecting the consumer who had dreams of happy eggs, and work tirelessly for a vegan future.

    These “farmers” should not get away with it and the whole industry and the discourse on animal instrumentality and cruelty must not be redirected or excused on the basis of a lapse in a paper certificate. The hens did not know if the certificate was in effect, they just knew the misery shown in the video.

  16. Thank you for this article. Sad that NY times avoided the opportunity.

    It’s hard for us to face the reality when it is so terrible. We all used to support animal abuse and cruelty, but many of us have stopped.

    Everyone can help justice and stop the violence. The excuses and lies can’t last forever, as I’ve personally experienced.

  17. Whole Foods Employee // January 12, 2015 at 9:26 pm // Reply

    Hi,

    As a Whole Foods Market employee, I was really sad to see this but am really interested to find more information. As one comment mentioned, it’s possibly that this farm is offering both free range and non-free range eggs.

    Whole Foods Market takes these allegations and footage very seriously, in the years that I have been with the company I have personally visited many of the farms where products are sourced and have been happy with the transparency.

    Most of the employees are proud of the company and their standards do I can honestly say the company wouldn’t have been aware of such conditions and knowingly sold the product. It’s bad for morale, bad for business, and bad for the animals.

    I am personally vegan but am proud to work for the company and hope that everyone reading about this article is rightfully upset but follows up with their local stores to learn all the details and updates.

  18. Interesting article and comments. It is definitely imperative that the facts surrounding cases like this are irrefutable once they reach the airwaves and papers. Otherwise, it makes advocates look fanatical and deceitful, pushing an agenda that has no merit. that is why I very much appreciate people like yourselves who are willing to get at the truth of the matter. Whether or not chickens are raised using organic standards, which in Canada means, organic feed and no antibiotics, they are still enslaved and living under cruel conditions with death prescribed when they are spent.

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