(This version of the June 9 item, in 4th paragraph corrects to state the employee was not fired but left the company voluntarily)
By Karl Plume
CHICAGO An undercover investigation by the Humane Society of the United States found unsanitary and "inhumane" conditions at a Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, farm that supplies eggs to retailer Costco Wholesale Corp, the animal welfare group said Tuesday.
Footage collected at a Hillandale Farms facility in April and May by someone "associated with" the Humane Society showed hens laying eggs in cramped cages with deceased birds. Broken eggs and dead chickens were on the floor.
"This is the type of inhumane, unhygienic and unsustainable practice that has no place in Costco's egg supply chain," Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection, said during a media conference call.
Hillandale Farms said the employee that gathered the footage was to blame for the lapse in production standards and that he has since left the company voluntarily. The company said it brought in two independent food safety and veterinary experts to review its operations and concluded that the Humane Society's findings "reflect an isolated incident."
Hillandale provides eggs to some Costco stores under the brand name Nearby Eggs. The family-owned farm business is also an Eggland's Best LLC franchisee.
The Humane Society called on Costco to provide a timeline for its promised transition to cage-free eggs. The group's leaders were speaking with Costco officials later on Tuesday about its investigation, Shapiro said.
Costco, the third-largest U.S. retailer, did not have an immediate comment. The Humane Society said it was aware the employee was fired, but made no further comment.
Retailers and food makers have come under increased pressure from activists to improve their animal welfare and food production practices, including bigger crates and cages for animals and reducing the use of certain drugs in livestock and poultry production.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the largest U.S. food retailer, said in May that it was telling suppliers not to raise animals in gestation crates and under other conditions considered inhumane. The company also asked suppliers to curb the use of antibiotics in meat, seafood, dairy and egg production.
In March, senior Costco executives told Reuters the company was working toward eliminating the sale of meat from chickens and other animals raised with antibiotics but did not have a target date for reaching that goal.
(Additional reporting by Nathan Layne; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn)