December 14, 2011

Natural Foodie: New management promises changes at DeCoster

By Avery Yale Kamila akamila@mainetoday.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

A worker at DeCoster Egg Farms, above, works in one of the company’s many chicken barns, where thousands of birds are kept.

Press Herald file

click image to enlarge

At left, a chicken stretches its featherless neck through the wire of its cage as a visitor passes by. The birds are kept four to a cage and spend their lives standing on a wire floor. The egg farm’s new operators say they plan to be “a highly responsible operator, a strong economic contributor, and a good neighbor” in Maine. Critics of the company, however, say they doubt much will change.

Press Herald file

In a written statement, Land O'Lakes' Forbis said, "with regard to animal care, Moark is committed to quality animal care. We follow industry animal welfare guidelines, and will continue to do so at the Maine facilities."

Maine State Veterinarian Dr. Don Hoenig said unlike other states, Maine requires all laying hens to be vaccinated against salmonella. Samples are taken from each barn twice a year to test for salmonella. No salmonella has been detected in any of the farm's Maine barns in more than two years.

"I think (the new management) will make it a lot less confusing, because there were always these internal goings-on (under DeCoster's management) we were never privy to," Hoenig said. "We'd always be wondering who was pulling the strings from the ownership end. Now the company can speak with one voice, and that will make it less confusing for us."

According to Forbis, Moark has hired a human resources manager and an environmental, health and safety manager for the Maine farm.

A major producer of cheese and butter, Land O'Lakes is an agricultural cooperative that produces 12 billion pounds of milk each year. The company also owns divisions that sell animal feed, pesticides and seeds, including genetically modified varieties. In 2010, the company reported profits of more than $178 million.

Dean Foods Co. has a licensing agreement with Land O'Lakes to market dairy products under the Land O'Lakes brand. Dean Foods has been criticized by consumer groups for issues ranging from alleged unsanitary living conditions of animals under its care to intentionally misleading the public when it stopped using organic soybeans in its Silk brand soy milk without alerting buyers.

"The driving force is going to be the tone set by management," said Andrew Files, who heads the Maine Sustainable Agriculture Society. "It could be a better situation than what we've experienced with DeCoster in the past. Is it better than 10 layers in your backyard? That's a different discussion."

The idea of scale is relevant, because farms don't get bigger to provide better treatment for animals or to grow more nutritious food. Farms get bigger to lower costs, produce cheaper food and boost profits.

"It's extremely efficient to run a building as a factory," said Russell Libby, who heads the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. "You can get your costs down to almost nothing (on a per bird basis). Then you have the scale of micro, which is plenty efficient, but won't feed everybody. In between, we need more good models."

Critics of Land O'Lakes business practices point out that in June, the company paid $25 million to settle claims that it and other major egg producers engaged in a price-fixing scheme that involved killing off hens to inflate wholesale egg prices.

Land O'Lakes and other major dairy producers are now facing a lawsuit alleging a similar conspiracy to drive up wholesale milk prices by slaughtering more than half a million cows.

What will this mean for Maine? Forbis said not to worry.

"As employees, customers and the people of Maine get to know Moark, we believe they'll view us as a highly responsible operator, a strong economic contributor, and a good neighbor," Forbis said in a statement.

Only time will tell whether new management will bring change to this troubled farm.

 

Staff Writer Avery Yale Kamila can be contacted at 791-6297 or at akamila@pressherald.com

Twitter: AveryYaleKamila

 

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