Animal rights group targets Petaluma egg farm, Whole Foods Market (w/video)

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A Bay Area animal rights group posted a graphic video Thursday showing conditions inside a Petaluma egg farm, part of a campaign designed to shame one of its major customers, Whole Foods Market, and tarnish the certification program that assures consumers its organic eggs were produced in a humane manner.

But representatives for the farm and the nonprofit group that certified its processes both insist the online video showed hens that were not part of the Certified Humane program, undermining the video’s key contention that even the best farm practices amount to “violence” against animals.

“We are 100 percent certain that they shot the wrong flock,” said Stevan Allen, a spokesman for Petaluma Farms, which produces both organic and conventional eggs raised without cages. The farm’s owners, Steve and Judy Mahrt, also disputed the contention that animals had been mistreated.

Humane Farm Animal Care, a Herndon, Va., nonprofit agency that administers the Certified Humane program, said it has only certified the organic laying hens at Petaluma Farms, a portion of the farm’s animals. The hens shown in the video “were never certified by us,” said founder Adele Douglas.

Direct Action Everywhere, which was founded in Berkeley in early 2013, posted a 19-minute professionally produced video on its website Thursday, along with statements saying Whole Foods is deceiving its customers by supplying inhumanely produced food.

The advocacy group says its video, taken by activists who climbed over barbed-wire fences and into Petaluma Farms’ barns on multiple nights in 2013 and 2014, shows hens “suffering, in misery and sickness, and death.” Direct Action Everywhere maintained the video was the first to reveal conditions in a “certified humane” farm.

Petaluma Farms, run by the Mahrts for more than 30 years, produces both non-organic, cage-free and certified organic eggs. The organic eggs are sold by Whole Foods under its 365 label, as well as by Organic Valley, a nationwide agriculture cooperative based in Wisconsin.

The farm in the video is identified simply as a “humane certified” farm in Northern California. The images show at least three activists walking through dark henhouses with a camera and lights. Dozens of hens appear huddled together, some with feces on them and some missing significant numbers of feathers. The activists took one hen that appeared extremely lethargic.

Direct Action Everywhere organizer Priya Sawhney said her group is using the video — which she suggested was indicative of widespread problems at Petaluma Farms — to alert consumers that Whole Foods isn’t being honest about its animal products.

“They talk about how they source from farms that raise their animals humanely,” she said. “They say ‘values matter’ … but we want to expose their lies.”

Petaluma Farms rejected the claims that animals are mistreated on its Cavanaugh Lane farm.

“We are truly proud of our record as leaders and innovators in the area of poultry care,” Steve Mahrt said in a written statement. “A recent online video uses extremely selective footage to suggest that a few hens that should have been removed are representative of our entire farm.

“We spend every day with our hens, and given that their humane treatment has always been part of our core values, we find the video to be extremely offensive,” the statement said. “The video in no way reflects our practices or the overall health of our flocks.”

Petaluma Farms wasn’t aware of the break-ins until the video was published. The farm contacted police, but no formal legal action has yet been taken, Mahrt’s spokesman said.

The video was the second one publicized recently at a Sonoma County farm. In October, Mercy for Animals accused Reichardt’s Duck Farm of animal cruelty after an activist was hired and took surreptitious video. A subsequent investigation by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office and two veterinarians found no violations of law.

Such a review can better answer questions of animal welfare than a video by a group that depicts matters “completely slanted toward their agenda,” said Sonoma County Agricultural Commissioner Tony Linegar.

The bulk of the latest video focuses on Whole Foods’ image and animal-rights activists’ protests around the country, weaving in status updates on the bird removed from Mahrt’s farm. Activists said they took the bird to two veterinarians, hand-nursed her back to vitality and named her “Mei Hua,” or beautiful flower.

Whole Foods, which has 42 natural and organic stores in Northern California and 400 nationwide, decried the video’s characterization of its business practices.

“It’s unfortunate that this group is singling out Whole Foods Market and other brands we carry to push their own agenda, when we do more than any other grocer in the U.S. to help improve farm animal welfare,” said spokeswoman Beth Krauss.

She said company representatives visited Petaluma Farms last year and did not see conditions as portrayed in the video.

Nevertheless, she said, the company is “looking into this from every angle and are working with the producer to ensure its third-party animal welfare certifications are current and that it adheres to the humane practices that we expect and have documented at this farm in the past.”

Krauss said the video paints a distorted picture of the company’s animal welfare standards by deliberately combining information about different species of animals, certification groups and factory farms not associated with Whole Foods or its products.

Mahrt, through his written statement, said his farm maintains a full-time veterinarian, consulting nutritionists and innovative cage-free farming methods that allow hens to exhibit natural behaviors. It obtains independent certifications on its animal-welfare operations.

Whole Foods has sold cage-free eggs exclusively since 2004 and is working with experts to establish its own standards to be instituted this year to ensure humane conditions and provide deeper transparency, Krauss said.

The release of the video, which Direct Action Everywhere calls its “Whole Foods investigation,” coincides with a planned protest Sunday at a store in San Francisco. Sawhney said she didn’t believe any protests were planned for the Sonoma County Whole Foods outlets.

Douglas insisted farms can humanely treat animals “and that’s what these animal liberationists don’t want to hear.”

Her group has developed detailed standards with the help of “the best animal welfare scientists and veterinarians in the world.” And nearly 70 humane organizations, including the Humane Society of the U.S. and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, support the group.

Consumers seeking information about the way their food is produced must sift through a confusing array of labels. The federal government has set standards for products labeled as “organic,” but it has not defined how animals must be treated to label a product as “humane.”

Based on consumer demand, Whole Foods and other supermarkets and restaurants have encouraged third-party certifications for the humane treatment of animals. Among such efforts, the Humane Certified program last year inspected farms with 96 million animals, Douglas said, still a small portion of the 10 billion land animals that annually are raised and killed for food in the U.S.

The humane certified status for Petaluma Farms has expired, but Douglas said that was due to a lapse on the part of her group and not the farm. When the farm’s last inspection occurred in June 2013, she said, the flocks reviewed “met every single one of our standards.”

Mark Kastel, co-director and co-founder of the Cornucopia Institute, a farm policy research group in Wisconsin, said it was hard to tell from the video whether the hens at Petaluma Farms were being treated inhumanely.

A few still photographs, he said, suggest some hens appeared stressed and unhealthy.

“It’s true, even in some well-managed operations, you may have a few sick birds,” he said. “But I saw some shots that showed multiple birds and they looked in pretty bad shape.”

He said his group has not been allowed to tour Petaluma Farms. His group has a pending complaint with federal authorities about hens’ access to the outdoors at the farm. Petaluma Farms previously has maintained its special facilities to allow the birds access to fresh air and sunlight without increasing the risk of rodent contact and salmonella outbreaks that can come with outdoor soil spaces.

Petaluma egg farmer Arnie Reibli said activists often try to make standard farm practices look nefarious. Beak trimming, for example, is done so hens don’t cannibalize or hurt each other and is an accepted humane practice, he said. But animal rights activists, as in the Direct Action Everywhere video, say “beaks have been cut off” or other provocative wording.

Ultimately, he said, farmers can’t afford to treat animals poorly.

“It’s not in my best interest to have a flock of birds that is not healthy or that is not provided with good animal welfare,” Reibli said. “If you mistreat an animal or a human, they will not produce to the best of their ability.”

You can reach Lori A. Carter at 521-5470 or lori.carter@press democrat.com. On Twitter @loriacarter. You can reach Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit.

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Editor’s note: The name of Beth Krauss, a spokeswoman for Whole Foods, was misspelled in this story. It has been corrected in the

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