TURNER, Maine — The Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry is considering a request by the Humane Society of the United States to investigate alleged animal cruelty at a southern Maine egg facility based on an undercover operation by the animal rights group.

For four weeks in May, a whistle-blower secretly videoed conditions in the Turner egg production facility owned by Jack DeCoster and operated by Pennsylvania-based Hillandale Farms.

The results of the undercover operation were released Tuesday by the HSUS.

“For one month we had a whistle-blower filming and found hideous animal cruelty and food safety issues,” Paul Shapiro, HSUS vice president, said Tuesday morning. “What we saw in that video is heartbreaking.”

Other than to say the whistle-blower is a “supporter of the HSUS” who approached the organization and was an employee of the Turner facility at the time of filming, Shapiro would not identify the individual by name.

“This individual is a hero,” Shapiro said.

Shapiro described footage taken by the then-employee with a camera supplied by the HSUS showing chickens “crammed into cages, dead birds rotting in cages with live birds actually laying eggs on the dead birds, massive piles of dead chickens, birds with their heads stuck in cages dying from dehydration inches away from water, massive amounts of rodents [and] a numerous other horrors.”

In a statement released to the media Tuesday afternoon via email, a Hillandale official said they have made their own request to the state for an investigation into the conditions shown in the video.

“We reviewed the video, and we are investigating the practices in the barns where this footage may have been captured to ensure this is addressed immediately,” Melanie Wilt, company spokesperson, said in the email. “We have engaged our farm veterinarian, food safety and quality assurance teams to act swiftly to assure that we meet or exceed all animal health and food safety guidelines. In addition, we have reached out proactively to ask the [Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry] to conduct an immediate inspection.”

Wilt said the employee who shot the video is no longer employed by company: “The worker did not meet Hillandale’s standard of care” by not removing dead chickens from cages within a day.

Based on the footage, Shapiro said there is every indication the problems at the Turner plant are nothing new.

“Some of the animals looked like had been dead for months,” he said. “It’s hard to imagine what it must be like for them.”

Hillandale took over the Turner facility last July, Wilt said, and since then have invested in equipment and process upgrades to what she said were aging barns in addition to expanding training for employees there.

John Bott, director of communications for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, confirmed Tuesday that his agency had received the request for an investigation into the Turner plant from the HSUS. As of Tuesday afternoon, it wasn’t yet clear whether Hillandale’s request had also been received.

“The DACF takes allegations of this nature very seriously,” Bott said in an emailed reply for comment. “[The department] has contacted the HSUS in order to gather the information needed to conduct an inquiry and respond to their request.”

The humane society has also requested a federal investigation by the Food and Drug Administration into the facility, Shapiro said. The factory farm, which is still operating, is described in the HSUS report as a complex of 70 warehouses with roughly 4 million laying hens and is New England’s largest single producer of eggs. The unit in which the whistle-blower was employed contained approximately 450,000 hens producing 420,000 eggs every day.

This is not the first time Jack DeCoster’s facilities have come under fire.

In 2010, more than 1,900 people across the country reported getting sick from salmonella enteritidis linked to tainted eggs supplied by the Alden, Iowa, company Quality Egg, doing business as Wright County Egg and Hillandale Farms, an operation also managed by the DeCosters.

U.S. District Court Judge Mark Bennett sentenced Austin “Jack” DeCoster, 81, of Turner, Maine, and Peter DeCoster, 51, of Clarion, Iowa, each to three months in prison for introducing adulterated food into interstate commerce, a misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in prison.

The two men are appealing their sentences to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit.

A similar video was previously made public at a different Hillandale facility. Undercover video shot by an employee in the company’s Gettysburg facility a year ago showing conditions similar to those alleged in the Turner farm. Hillandale calls that an “isolated incident” resulting from the employee’s deliberate disregard of company’s operational policies aimed at misrepresenting the company, according to a statement on Hillandale’s website.

That footage was aired as part of an ABC Nightline investigation into animal cruelty at the poultry facility.

On Tuesday, Turner Town Manager Kurt Schaub said he had heard about the latest HSUS report, but it is municipal policy to not comment on any employer in the town.

“It is not anything we’d have any jurisdiction over,” Schaub said, adding that the facility is the town’s largest employer.

Wilt indicated that the company takes any allegations of this nature very seriously.

“We have engaged our farm veterinarian, food safety and quality assurance teams to act swiftly to assure that we meet or exceed all animal health and food safety guidelines,” she said. “In addition, we have reached out proactively to ask the Maine Department of Agriculture to conduct an immediate inspection.”

For now, Shapiro said his organization hopes to meet soon with state and federal officials to move the investigation forward.

“We would love to see them announce they are going to a ‘cage free’ operation,” he said. “That does not solve all the problems, but it does improve conditions for the animals.”

In a cage-free facility, Shapiro said, the hens may live indoors all the time but have more room to walk around, perch, take dust baths and enjoy a better quality of life.

“It is sobering to realize the largest egg producer in New England is engaged in those cruel practices,” Shapiro said. “This is a widespread form of animal cruelty in the industry.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.