Little Rhody Egg Farms: Starving Hens for Profit
“We try to be really gentle about it. It’s like fasting.”
- Eli Berkowitz, owner of Little Rhody Egg Farms, Foster, Rhode Island
In the previous issue of Poultry Press (Vol. 19, No. 1) we published an investigative report by Christa Albrecht-Vegas about Little Rhody Egg Farms in Foster, Rhode Island. Christa interviewed the owner, Eli Berkowitz, about his treatment of the 40,000 hens who lay eggs for his company, crammed in metal cages in a barren, windowless building. Berkowitz acknowledged that Little Rhody engages in forced molting, the egg-industry practice in which hens are totally starved or deprived of vital nutrients, anywhere from several days to two full weeks, in order to regulate egg prices and prepare the survivors for another round of egg-laying before being disposed of. Berkowitz said Little Rhody removes all food from the hens “until they have lost 15-20 percent of their body weight,” but he refused to tell Christa for how many days (or weeks) his hens are forced to sit in their cages with nothing to eat.
Background on Forced Molting
In 1992, United Poultry Concerns discovered the literature on the forced molting of laying hens, including the link between forced molting and Salmonella enteritidis bacterial poisoning of force-molted hens, their eggs, and consumers and handlers of eggs and egg products. (Hens’ immune systems break down under the strain of starvation causing severe bacterial infections in their ovaries and other vital organs.)
Our discoveries prompted a campaign that lasted for more than a decade in which United Poultry Concerns and the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights worked together to expose this horrible egg industry practice. So successful was our campaign - it produced a scathing front-page article, “Cracks in the Egg Industry,” in the Sunday Edition of The Washington Post on April 30, 2000 - that United Egg Producers, the trade group claiming to represent 95 percent of U.S. egg producers, renounced forced molting by total starvation in favor of a nutritionally deficient “molt diet.” Starting in 2006, UEP-certified egg producers could no longer molt their hens by depriving them of all food.
In 2004, United Egg Producers surveyed 46 egg companies to learn what kind of a molt program they were using at that time. Twenty-two companies said they used a starvation (“food-deprivation”) program and 24 companies said they were using a nutrient-deficient (“low-nutrient”) molt diet. Eighty percent of the “low-nutrient” companies said they would continue using the molt diet instead of taking away all the hens’ food.
What Does This Tell Us About Little Rhody Egg Farms?
Little Rhody is not a member of United Egg Producers and therefore does not have to meet even the minimal “welfare” standards set by UEP for its member companies. Little Rhody force-molts the company’s hens using a starvation procedure that, by the late 1990s, had been publicly condemned not only by the animal rights community but by poultry scientists, veterinarians, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Forced Molting vs. Natural Molting
Molting refers to the replacement in birds of old feathers with new ones. In nature, birds replace all of their feathers in the course of a year. A natural molt occurs most often and obviously near the onset of winter in response to the shortening hours of sunlight. At this time the hen lays fewer or no eggs, devoting her energies instead to staying warm and renewing her plumage for the cold months ahead. The egg industry exploits this natural process by forcing an entire flock to molt simultaneously. Deprived of food and essential nutrients, the hens stop laying eggs, and their feathers fall out. Unlike force-molted hens, chickens molting naturally do not stop eating, they are not traumatized, and they do not become sick with Salmonella infections the way force-molted hens do. Forced molting is based on the desires of egg producers, rather than being a natural response of the henís body to the season of the year.
Urge Little Rhody to discontinue the practice of force molting the company’s hens by depriving them of all food. Point out that force molting hens by food deprivation is no longer accepted by any reputable profession including the American Veterinary Medical Association. Ask Mr. Berkowitz for a written reply stating what the company is going to do.
Eli Berkowitz, Owner
Little Rhody Egg Farms
69 Cucumber Hill Road
Foster, RI 02825
Little Rhody retailers include Stop & Shop, Shaws, CVS, and Walgreens, as well as independent grocers, restaurants and convenience stores throughout Rhode Island, Southeastern Massachusetts and Eastern Connecticut. Please inform these retailers - and everyone you know - that Little Rhody molts its hens by depriving them of all food. And please write letters to the editors of your local newspapers.
Keep in mind that even if only 5 percent of U.S. egg producers molt their hens by starving them, this still includes millions of hens each year. And even though the low nutrient “molt diet” is less inhumane than no food at all, forced molting by any means is a cruel violation of the natural molting behavior of birds.
For more information about forced molting, see pp. 74-79 of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs (2009). You can also learn more by visiting our Website at www.upc-online.org/molting.