Shoppers find egg shelves empty

  • Article by: BOB VON STERNBERG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 19, 2011 - 10:56 PM

Fallout continued from a video of animal abuse at a Litchfield-based egg producer.

Eggs disappeared Saturday from some Twin Cities supermarkets, bringing the impact of a new national controversy about abusive treatment of farm-raised chickens directly to consumers.

With just days until Thanksgiving, shoppers at the St. Paul Midway SuperTarget were confronted with a sign at the egg shelves telling them "eggs are not available at this location."

Shopper Missie Weiss found herself doing a double-take. "I actually asked [where they were]," she said. "I thought I was losing my mind."

Target Corp. pulled all the eggs it received from Sparboe Farms, the Litchfield-based producer whose facilities were the subject of a newly released video that graphically shows abuse of hens and chicks. Sparboe is the nation's fifth-largest egg producer.

It wasn't clear how widespread the egg shortage was across the Target chain, but a company spokeswoman said eggs were being pulled nationwide.

SuperTarget stores in the metro area, including Hudson, were telling customers Saturday evening that they hoped to have another egg vendor by Wednesday.

Calls to a number of Super Targets in the Upper Midwest found some out of eggs, while others were still selling another brand.

Following the lead of the McDonald's Corp. on Friday, Target also dumped Sparboe as its egg supplier.

Eden Prairie-based SuperValu Inc. followed suit Saturday, announcing that it will no longer sell eggs supplied by Sparboe through the 2,000-plus grocers it supplies. "SuperValu requires that each of our suppliers act in accordance with all food safety and animal welfare regulations and we are very concerned with the reported violations by Sparboe Farms," said spokesman Mike Siemienas. "While we do not carry eggs from Sparboe Farms in our retail stores, we do distribute some Sparboe eggs through our distribution business."

Mercy for Animals, the Chicago-based animal rights group that distributed the clandestine video shot at Sparboe facilities, and Sparboe officials held dueling news conferences Saturday in downtown Minneapolis, a day after the video was broadcast nationally on ABC.

The animal rights group said it sent letters to both Target and McDonald's, asking that the companies stop selling any eggs from hens that commercial producers confine in crowded cages. Neither Target nor McDonald's had responded to the letters as of Saturday.

Sparboe Farms President Beth Sparboe Schnell said she was "sickened" by the images of chickens being mistreated. Four employees and a supervisor have been fired, she said.

"At Sparboe Farms, we expect employees to follow the best care possible," she said, adding that the behavior by employees caught on video "is totally unacceptable and inconsistent with our values as farmers."

The hidden-camera video taken at Sparboe plants in Minnesota, Iowa and Colorado showed crowded cages common in the egg industry and other abuses of birds by plant workers.

Daniel Hauff, the group's director of investigations, said the organization also planned to contact Wal-Mart, the nation's largest grocery chain, along with a handful of smaller regional chains, after it determined that Sparboe eggs were sold at their stores.

While the company has been dealing with the Food and Drug Administration over some food safety regulations, Schnell said several times that there were no "noted violations that created a health risk."

The company's eggs are safe, she said.

After again showing his group's video Saturday, Hauff said Sparboe's managers "were fully aware of how these animals were treated."

The videos show chicks having their beaks seared off, hens being tossed by plant workers and birds jammed tightly into cages for what Hauff called their "entire miserable lives."

"They treat them like egg-producing machines," he added.

Back at the Midway Target, St. Paul resident Amy Wagner said that when she got to the dairy aisle, she was puzzled over the egg-less shelves. Because of the recalled Sparboe Farms eggs, an employee explained, the busy St. Paul store sold out of the other brand it carries, Eggland's Best eggs. The shelf space normally taken by eggs was filled with half-and-half and other dairy products.

Wagner said the egg sandwiches and dessert she was planning to make this week will have to wait. "It's a minor inconvenience," she said. "I'm just glad the animals are being taken care of."

Staff writers Suzanne Ziegler and Kelly Smith contributed to this report. Bob von Sternberg • 612-673-7184

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