CHICAGO - Fast food giant McDonald's severed ties with one of its American egg suppliers Friday after a video taken by undercover animal rights activists exposed shocking cruelty to chickens at a farm.
The footage showed chicks having the tips of their beaks being burned off by a machine and then tossed into cages along with images of barely identifiable corpses of birds that were left to rot in cages.
It also showed unwanted chicks left to die in plastic bags, birds mangled by the bars of overcrowded cages, and a chicken flapping its wings in distress as a plant worker swung the creature on a rope in a wide circle.
There are no federal laws governing the treatment of poultry on US farms and most states have sweeping exemptions for farmed animals which allow for abuses to run rampant without prosecution.
"Unfortunately, much of the abuse we documented is not only standard, it's legal," Nathan Runkle, director of Mercy for Animals, which obtained the clandestine footage, told AFP.
"We've done over a dozen investigations at factory farms from coast to coast," he said. "Every time we've sent an investigator into one of these facilities they've come out with shocking evidence of abuse and neglect."
McDonald's confirmed it had directed its supplier, Cargill, to stop sourcing McDonald eggs from Sparboe, the company at the center of the cruelty video.
"The behavior on tape is disturbing and completely unacceptable,"
McDonald's said in a statement.
"McDonald's wants to assure our customers that we demand humane treatment of animals by our suppliers. We take this responsibility -- along with our customers' trust -- very seriously."
Sparboe, a family-run company, said it had launched a probe after learning of the video and has fired four workers who engaged in mistreatment of chickens.
In a message posted on a dedicated website, owner Beth Sparboe Schnell said an independent auditor from Iowa State University confirmed the company is in "full compliance with our animal welfare policies."
She said Sparboe Farms was the first American egg producer to have its "science-based animal care production guideline" certified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
But Runkle noted that the video shows that "much of the mishandling type of abuse took place directly in front of and under the watch of supervisors and managers" at Sparboe facilities in Iowa, Minnesota and Colorado.
He also said McDonald's decision to drop Sparboe as a supplier also fails to provide a solution to the real problem -- the use of cramped battery cages which give hens no room to walk or spread their wings, Runkle added.
Mercy for Animals said it was urging McDonald's to use its influence as the largest egg purchaser in the United States to improve industry standards and stop buying eggs from farms that use such cages.
The video was released a day after federal inspectors issued a warning letter to Sparboe citing "serious violations" of food safety rules, including inadequate rodent control and testing for the presence of deadly Salmonella bacteria.
Image: Bill & Vicki Tracey / via Flickr