A central Pennsylvania chicken company that promotes what it calls its humane slaughtering practices was accused of cruelty Monday by an animal-rights organization that alleges it allows newly hatched chicks to be tossed live into meat grinders and other brutal conditions.
Compassion Over Killing, a Washington-based nonprofit that says it is dedicated to preventing animal cruelty and promoting vegetarian eating, released a video Monday it says was recorded by an undercover investigator who spent several weeks working in the Bell & Evans hatchery in Fredericksburg, Lebanon County.
Bell & Evans, a family-owned and -run company, distributes millions of chickens each month to Pennsylvania restaurants, butchers, and stores such as Whole Foods. A representative of Bell & Evans said the company had not verified that the video was shot there.
In the video, baby chicks are dropped on conveyor belts and thrown about by machinery before being sent to farms, said Erica Meier, director of Compassion Over Killing. Sick or injured live chicks are seen being dumped into a grinder.
"Consumers who are looking for cruelty-free meat need to know about this," Meier said. "Anyone concerned with their meat being cruelty-free should recognize that animal cruelty is standard practice in this industry."
Tom Stone, director of sales and marketing for Bell & Evans, said Monday that the video was under review but said he would decline to comment further until more facts were known.
"We've always been very proud of what we do here," Stone said. "We're proud of the way we treat animals."
Bell & Evans has long presented itself as a pioneer in the natural and organic foods movement and says it raises its chickens on a vegetarian diet free of antibiotics.
The company also has made itself known for ethics, declaring on its website that "all of our chickens are humanely raised and compassionately handled, in a minimal-stress environment, throughout their lives."
In 2010, the company became one of two premium chicken producers in the country to start rendering chickens unconscious with carbon dioxide gas before killing them, lessening the animals' pain.
The website also states that baby chicks are "carefully sorted from their shells, and placed in protective delivery baskets headed for the farm."
"This was, obviously, not what we saw," Meier said.
The investigation was spurred in part by the company's claims of humane treatment, Meier said. She acknowledged that no violations of cruelty laws were observed in the footage, but said she saw the video as a consumer-protection issue.
"Raising animals for food humanely is a challenge," she said. "Bell & Evans have gone further than many other companies to reduce suffering in some places. But people who are truly looking for cruelty-free meat need to realize that these practices are taking place behind closed doors for a reason."