The Humane Society of the United States is doubling down on accusations that an egg supplier to warehouse-club giant Costco operates a caged-hen factory farm. The animal-welfare group has launched a billboard campaign in Times Square, displaying an “undercover exposé” of Hillandale Farms — a three-minute video, displayed on a 1,700-square-foot digital billboard, depicting what appear to be gruesome scenes inside extreme cage-confinement operations at Hillandale’s Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, facility: dead and decaying corpses of birds, piles of broken, fly-covered eggs, hens with their legs stuck in wire cages.
Eight years after Costco announced it would eliminate all caged-hen eggs from its supply chain, the Humane Society is calling out the big box for not making good on its promise. In addition to the video, released to the public on June 9, the group has spent the past few weeks ratcheting up its message, calling in celebrities including Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, and Bill Maher to pen open letters and op-eds criticizing Costco for failing to follow through.
“Eight years ago Costco announced they were going to go 100 percent cage-free, and the next step was that they were going to release a timeline,” Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm-animal protection at the Humane Society, tells the Voice. Burger King, Unilever, Aramark, Sodexo, Compass Group, and other major retailers have made similar pledges, implementing timelines for the ban. Costco made the pledge in 2008 but has yet to say when it will eliminate eggs laid by caged hens.
In an email to FOXBusiness.com, Costco CEO Craig Jelinek contended that the company is being unfairly targeted, as it represents just 15 percent of Hillandale’s business. “This has been going on for about two to three months,” Jelinek wrote. “We probably are the largest seller of cage-free eggs in the United States. The society would like us to give them a timeline as to when we will be all cage-free and we are not prepared to do that.”
On June 9, Hillandale responded to the Humane Society’s infiltration. A press release that remains prominently linked on the egg farm’s website asserts that the video footage was shot by an “undercover employee” who sabotaged the facility in order to misrepresent conditions at the company.
“A full internal investigation by our team and by independent outside academic experts in food safety and hen welfare confirmed our belief — that the images in the video reflect an isolated incident in a barn where the undercover worker held primary responsibility,” the release reads. “It was his job to identify and address the types of issues that were shown, and he did not adequately perform his job requirements….While the images on the video are disturbing, our expert review has affirmed that our food safety and hen care programs are solid.”
The following day ABC aired a report on its Nightline news program that included the Humane Society’s footage, along with interviews of Hillandale higher-ups and a tour of its facility.
While Costco continues to sell factory-farmed eggs, the company has taken steps toward humane treatment when it comes to other products. In 2012 the warehouse chain called on suppliers to eradicate gestation crates — cages that are designed to hold pregnant sows and are so tight the animals are unable to turn around. Costco pledges that such crates will be phased out of its supply chain by 2022. Shapiro says the company has a similar timeline for the removal of veal crates.
Currently, about 40 percent of the eggs sold at Costco come from cage-free birds.
“Burger King, by 2017, will be 100 percent cage-free,” notes Shapiro. “I can’t remember any company that has made an announcement and not done anything years later. Costco should do what it pledged to do.”
Here’s the Times Square ad, which the Humane Society plans to broadcast four times an hour through Sunday: