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McDonald's drops Litchfield, Minn., egg supplier over cruelty charges

The exterior of the Sparboe Farms plant in Litchfield is pictured Friday. Sparboe Fames has been dropped as a supplier by fast-rood giant McDonald's after an animal rights group released an undercover video of operations at the egg producer's farms in three states. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

LITCHFIELD -- An undercover video shot by members of an animal rights organization had swift and costly repercussions for Litchfield-based egg producer Sparboe Farms. Just hours after the video was made public Friday by Mercy for Animals, fast-food giant McDonalds terminated its contract with Sparboe.

McDonalds Corp. also rebuked the company for the "disturbing and completely unacceptable" behavior shown on the video that was recorded at several Sparboe farms in Minnesota, Iowa and Colorado.

The move follows a warning letter sent to Sparboe Farms this week from the Food and Drug Administration that said inspectors found serious food safety violations at five Sparboe facilities in April and July and that corrective actions taken by the company were insufficient.

Sparboe responded quickly to the video, which showed baby chickens stuffed in plastic bags to die, remnants of decayed chickens pulled from crowded cages and a worker swinging a chicken over his head.

In a written and video response on their web site,, company owner and President Beth Sparboe Schnell said she was "deeply saddened" to see "disturbing" video of the mistreatment of egg-producing chickens at their farms.

She said the "shocking" acts depicted in the footage are "totally unacceptable and completely at odds with our values as egg farmers."

The video "isn't who Sparboe Farms is," she said.

Schnell said an independent audit indicates Sparboe is in compliance with animal welfare policies. However on Nov. 13 the company said it began retraining all barn workers in proper animal care procedures.

The problems at Sparboe go beyond the filming of an undercover video.

Earlier this month the Food and Drug Administration cited Sparboe for 13 serious violations pertaining to the prevention of salmonella at farms that produce eggs. The company was told Thursday that corrective actions they'd taken weren't enough.

The video, which many would find disturbing to watch, shows actions of several employees that go beyond issues of unsanitary conditions, rodent control and contamination listed by the FDA.

Sparboe apparently got word of the video Nov. 1 when contacted by ABC News, which was scheduled to air an investigative report on the alleged abuse last night.

After asking ABC News, and later Mercy for Animals, for a complete copy of the videos, Sparboe Farms identified and fired four workers that can be seen participating in the questionable activity.

Schnell claimed at least one of those workers was an animal activist "hired under false pretenses" who was part of a travelling group of workers that shot the video on several Sparboe farms.

Schnell went on to say the video showed actions that are "in direct violation of our animal care code of conduct, which all of our employees read, sign and follow each day."

Even though the workers were bound to report the abuse, she said no employees - including the animal rights activist - reported violations at that time.

"I am sickened that the wrongful actions of a handful of bad actors would raise questions about Sparboe Farm's earned reputation and over-shadow the good work of hundreds of Sparboe employees that strive to do the right thing every day," said Schnell.

In addition to the employees who were fired, the web site indicated "management changes" were also implemented on Friday at Sparboe.

Schnell said the company has pledged to continue the investigation and that others involved will be held accountable for their actions.

The 57-year old company operates egg-producing farms in Minnesota, Iowa and Colorado.

Schnell said the company has been an industry leader for food safety and conducts federal audits every six months, which she said is twice as often as the industry standard.