Why An Iowa Egg Factory Is Being Accused Of Inhumane Practices

While egg production and consumption in the U.S. have decreased slightly in the past two years, eggs have been an increasingly big business over the past two decades, reports United Egg Producers. Demand has been driven by changes in diets and consumer needs, specifically a desire for protein-rich foodstuffs (via the Agricultural Marketing Research Council). Further, eggs with attributes, such as elevated omega-3 and vitamin E content, have become valuable commodities.

But egg production has been threatened in recent years by illnesses prone to spreading among the close quarters laying flocks occupy. In 2022, as reported by the USDA, a highly contagious variant of avian influenza is spreading among backyard and commercial chicken and turkey flocks, leading to drastic measures to mitigate further transmission. 

When outbreaks are detected, swift action is often the only recourse to mitigate further distribution of the virus between birds. So, when Rembrandt Enterprises was alerted to a case of avian flu in their flock, it was no surprise that they initiated steps to protect their operation. But the lengths to which they went to insulate the business and the bottom line have led to an outcry.

Killing chickens and jobs

Rembrandt, based out of Rembrandt, Iowa, undertook the task of dispatching their 5.3 million laying chickens via a method known in the industry as ventilation shutdown plus, says The Guardian. This involves the cessation of airflow to the coops, precipitating an increase in the temperature north of 104℉ and a spike in carbon dioxide. 

Guidelines from the USDA and American Veterinary Medicine Association call for ventilation shutdown plus to be used during the current avian flu outbreak in constrained circumstances where poultry are floor-reared or confined in aviary or cage houses. The stated goal of the policy is to depopulate the chicken coop as quickly as possible with a minimum of animal suffering. Other USDA-approved methods for mass depopulation include the application of water-based foam and the piping in of carbon dioxide gas.

Still, there are those who stand opposed to the practice of ventilation shutdown plus. Rembrandt Enterprises' director Glen Taylor is the majority owner of the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves, and recent games have been disrupted by protests, reports the Des Moines Register. A playoff matchup against the Memphis Grizzlies saw a purported member of Direct Action Everywhere storm the court dressed as a referee in an effort to draw attention to the depopulation of chickens by Rembrandt.

Economic impact of avian flu

With several million chickens no longer laying eggs at the facility, more than 200 employees of the Rembrandt Enterprises operation were terminated, says the Storm Lake Times Pilot. This is the third time that the company has contracted avian flu at its facility, and each time the company has terminated around the same number of workers. What makes this time different is that the company has, as of yet, offered no guarantee that they will repopulate their coops and thus, bring back the lost jobs.

While many producers across the U.S. have been forced to cull their flocks, Rembrandt is on track to be the hardest hit, notes the Minnesota Star-Tribune. The facility's chicken cull accounts for over half of the 10 million chickens that have been killed in Iowa due to the recent avian flu outbreak.

In addition to the economic hit egg producers and their employees are taking due to the spread of this newest variant of avian flu, Bloomberg notes that there is pain to be shared by almost all consumers. As more and more laying hens are killed to stop the spread of the disease, prices for eggs and products containing eggs are creeping up. This is an especially painful pinch in the pocketbook as inflation continues to rise across the nation.