Know Thy Enemy Week #1: Wegmans

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(This is the first entry of five in a week-long series I’m calling “Know Thy Enemy Week,” which will feature quotes and perspectives of those that don’t have the interests of animals in mind. By paying close attention to how corporations and anti-AR folks think, perhaps we can learn a little better how to deal with these attitudes and turn the “enemies” into allies.)

For our first entry, I figured I’d feature the hot story that just won’t go away. I’m sure most Veg Blog readers have seen the excellent footage gathered by Compassionate Consumers in 2004 inside a Wegmans egg farm. It’s horrifying, as is pretty much all footage shot inside factory farm operations: hens living atop rotting corpses of their cagemates, many of them getting their beaks or legs caught in the cage’s wire, and others dying a slow, painful death in the manure pit. Erik Marcus often says that every egg has 30 hours of cruelty attached to it, and when you see how millions of egg-laying hens live their lives before being shipped off for slaughter, it’s clear that “cruelty” is too light of a word.

The thing is, the footage inside the Wegmans egg farm isn’t anything more shocking than other similar expose footage. But you have to look at the company behind the farm. Wegmans is often pointed to as one of the Best Places to Work because of how well they treat their (human) employees. They offer gourmet foods, many “natural” foods, organic produce, and many vegan/vegetarian convenience foods at competitive prices. They’re like a Whole Foods combined with a Safeway combined with a bakery combined with a cafe combined with a Target. Clearly, their target audience isn’t the standard consumer.

Because of this, I would expect more from Wegmans. I’d expect them to follow Trader Joe’s lead and not sell eggs from caged birds under their store brand. But because of these same factors, I see why Compassionate Consumers targeted them specifically: a company like Wegmans should be more likely to make changes in animal welfare to maintain their reputation.

Unfortunately, that didn’t prove to be the case. Instead, Wegmans released this despicable press release last November (updated a few days ago) claiming not only that they treat their hens well but that the footage in the video may not have been shot at the Wegmans egg farm. Of course, they’ve offered no evidence that this is the case and are simply using that deceptive language to plant a seed of doubt in their customers’ heads. In fact, Wegmans makes a lot of questionable claims shrouded by clever use of language:

In November of 2005, our farm participated in its annual audit of the United Egg Producers (UEP) Certified program, which outlines a set of science-based standards for cage space, air and water quality, nutritious food, and other animal care practices. The USDA conducted this audit, and we received a perfect score – 200 out of 200. (Our score in 2004 was in the high 190’s.)

The UEP Certified program is, for all intents and purposes, meaningless. The UEP is an industry group that creates their own rules, rules that allow for painful debeaking of hens and extremely tight confinement (allowing each bird a mere 67-86 square inches – less than a sheet of 8 1/2″x11″ paper and over 200 square inches less than a hen needs to be able to flap her wings). In fact, “UEP Certified” is the term the industry has been forced to use after Compassion Over Killing showed that their previous label, “Animal Care Certified,” was misleading. I encourage you to read the industry’s own guidelines (PDF) for yourself.

In the end, it was determined there was no evidence of animal abuse. The New York State Police and the Wayne County District Attorney’s office jointly conducted the investigation, and Wegmans fully cooperated.

I’m guessing this is because most states exempt chickens from anti-cruelty laws and as long as it’s “standard industry practice” (set, of course, by the industry), then it’s OK.

Food safety and food security are non-negotiable for us. We welcome customer debate on any topic, but we cannot tolerate illegal entry into our laying houses because of the obvious risk that a disease, like avian flu, could be tracked in.

It’s interesting that they bring this up, considering many believe the reason that avian flu has spread like it has is specifically because of factory farm confinement operations.

Eggs produced by cage-free hens are available at Wegmans. These eggs cost more to produce, so the retail price is much higher than Wegmans eggs. Three nationally-known specialty food stores are often lauded for switching to cage-free eggs only. Wegmans is a full-service supermarket, not a specialty food store. (Emphasis mine.)

They’re not a speciality food store? Baloney. Compare Wegmans to your local Safeway and you’ll see they’re not a mere “full-service supermarket.” Regular old supermarkets don’t develop scary cult followings. Specialty food stores do.

The final statement of the press release is the most telling:

We don’t believe we should force all of our customers to pay more than double the price for a dozen eggs just because a few people think we should.

It’s all about keeping prices down, which inevitably means that the birds suffer as a result. And if it were really just a “few people” would similar campaigns have worked with Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, and Wild Oats? How about the 80 universities and colleges that will no longer use caged birds’ eggs in their dining halls? It’s a legitimate concern of many, many consumers and Wegmans is failing to acknowledge that.

Compassionate Consumers takes on this same statement from Wegmans. Take a look, it’s a great read.

So, know thy enemy. One would think that a seemingly progressive-thinking company like Wegmans would consider animal welfare as an important issue, but it’s become clear that they’re acting no different from any other factory farm operation that works under the “UEP Certified” label. How can we work with Wegmans to change their policy? Support groups like Compassionate Consumers. Write to Wegmans to express your disgust with not only their farms but with their public response. I firmly believe that they will change their ways, but it’s going to take time and determination.

Also, keep an eye out on April 14th. ABC’s Primetime is slated to cover the Wegmans egg farm investigation. Should be interesting to see how evenly the story is covered.

9 Responses to “Know Thy Enemy Week #1: Wegmans”

  1. Karen

    Thank you for the time and insight you put into this. It’s hard for me to read this but it is a fact of life. And it’s best to know your enemy, ’tis true.

  2. Avian Mooch

    Of course, one would also think that stores like Whole Foods would know that “compassionate” doesn’t mean “allowed to do anything as long as it’s accepted by the upscale ‘ethical’ consumers”, aka not killing the animals in the first place.

    Yeah, yeah, better than nothing. Whatever. What’s better than nothing to you is still the loss of EVERYTHING to that pig, or cow, or sheep, or chicken, or fish.

  3. John

    “I see why Compassionate Consumers targeted them specifically: a company like Wegmans should be more likely to make changes in animal welfare to maintain their reputation.”

    On the flip side, doesn’t this way of thinking mean that we’d always be harping on the “good guys”, thereby creating a disincentive for the adoption of half-decent corporate policies?

  4. Ryan

    That’s a good point, John. I would like to think (though I can’t say for sure) that Compassionate Consumers approached Wegman’s with their information first before making it public. If that’s the case, Wegman’s had the chance to look proactive and save face.

  5. Vegan Momma

    Ahh yes Wegman’s. I sent them a personal email a few months ago and I actually received a repsonse yesterday. I actually posted it on my blog. I’ll write them back in a few days some of their points were taken directly out of their news release. I’m pleased that they responded.

  6. jason

    This has got to stop – Wegmans offers all kinds of eggs. If you can afford “humanely”-raised eggs then buy them. The rest of us cannot possibly afford such eggs and are more interested in providing healthful proteins to our families than wasting money on the well-being of a bunch of hens….

    Get over it; Wegmans only specialty is variety of choice!

  7. Ryan

    The rest of us cannot possibly afford such eggs

    Then… don’t buy eggs, maybe?

    and are more interested in providing healthful proteins

    Plant proteins are about as healthful as you can get. And they’re incredibly easy to get.

    to our families than wasting money on the well-being of a bunch of hens….

    Rarely is money “wasted” when it comes to the well being of sentient beings.

  8. sdf

    Wegmans no longer owns the egg farm. EB now runs it I believe.

  9. John

    The United Egg Producers is a discredited trade organization with a sordid history of consumer fraud and animal cruelty. The “UEP Certified” program allows hens to be confined in cages that provide each animal less space than a sheet of paper to spend her life. More at http://www.humanesociety.org/uep

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