On November 17, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) released a video and commentary alleging abuse at a Cal-Maine egg production complex in Texas. The clandestine video was filmed by an HSUS investigator during October 2010. The allegations included: failure to promptly remove dead birds from cages, trapping of individual birds in cages by defects in wire and injury to the feet of some hens.

As an experienced poultry veterinarian, I am aware that it is possible in the best run and operated farms to encounter a dead bird in a cage even with routine daily collection. It is also possible to find localized areas in houses where atmospheric conditions may be less than optimal for a limited period.

Unfortunately, HSUS has the luxury of selectively editing videos and presenting their version of what may or may not be consistently present in the operation. The fact that HSUS investigators make false claims when completing pre-employment forms places in questions their veracity. Their independence and impartiality is obviously not as pronounced as their zealotry and commitment to a cause.

In response, the implicated company issued a press release on November 18 confirming that all their units function in accordance with the United Egg Producers’ Animal Care Guidelines, which are based on recommendations from an independent scientific advisory committee. “The company operates in full compliance with existing environmental, health and safety laws and regulations and permits. Each employee involved in the care and handling of hens is required to review, sign and comply with company codes of conduct regarding the ethical treatment of hens.”

The disclosure by HSUS is in all probability timed to influence Senate deliberations on public health legislation. Consistently, the HSUS has incorrectly correlated cage housing with a high prevalence of SE infection. In their press release they incorrectly implicated the accused company in the recent SE recall. It is a matter of record that the suspect product was produced by other than the company implicated in the press release. They responded rapidly to information that the purchased eggs were potentially infected and a complete and effective recall was completed within a day with full transparency.

The HSUS cites scientific research as the basis for their allegations relating to the relationship between cage housing and SE. Many of the papers and non peer-reviewed reports forming the basis of their contention are defective. Nearly all are derived from Europe, are out of date or do not reflect the realities of protective vaccination, enhanced biosecurity and hygiene which are standards in the U.S. industry.

The prevalence of SE among the various housing systems currently used in the U.S. has not been subjected to a comprehensive structured survey. It is a matter of record that tens of millions of hens in cages maintained at the current 67 in2  have been free of SE infection for over 15 years. By the same token there are barn and free-range flocks infected with SE. Infection is independent of housing system despite the results of some flawed EU studies cited by HSUS which purport to show an association between intensive cage production and SE infection.

What we have learned from this latest episode is that HSUS is ever vigilant and ready to publicize alleged deviations from standard. It is however evident that they probably evaluate more operations than they can find fault, given the relevant infrequency and timing of their releases.

If individual producers are deviating from accepted standards it would be advisable to rectify any deficiencies either in cages, procedures and management. The introduction of the FDA Final Rule prescribes minimum requirements with respect to biosecurity, rodent control and monitoring for SE. Some producers within our industry exceed these requirements and in addition have embarked on an aggressive program of vaccination to provide security.

It is difficult to identify investigators and agents of HSUS and kindred organizations and exclude them from farming enterprises. It is however suggested that greater care should be applied to vetting employees and obtaining written assurances that they are not connected to animal rights organizations or the media before employment. By the same token, producers should ensure that there are no practices or conditions which are below the accepted standards of housing and management.