The Organic Egg Claims
“Buy Organic Free-Range and Natural Cage-Free Eggs from a Virginia Family Farm. Good for the animals, for you, and for the environment.”
www.blackeaglefarm.com/POULTRY.html “Our organic pullets and layers are kept under stringent USDA organic standards and according to our own organic, and animal and environmentally friendly criteria.” www.blackeaglefarm.com
“Officer Solar stated that on her last visit out to the farm on 12/8/09 that the laying hens on the property had been without feed since 12/4/09.” – Rachel Touroo, DVM. Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, Animal and Food Industry Services/Office of Veterinary Services SUMMARY OF FINDINGS, December 9, 2009.
Black Eagle Farm is an operation owned by Dr. Ralph Glatt in Piney River, Nelson County, Virginia. Located in central Virginia 100 miles from Richmond and 130 miles from Washington, DC, Black Eagle Farm is a self-styled “traditional family farm with a long history of treating our animals and the environment with respect.” Black Eagle Farm announced completion of its “innovative organic layer [hen] house in April 2008” and the selling of its “first USDA certified organic free-range pastured brown eggs in June 2008.” On a website dated March 23, 2009, Black Eagle described itself as a “sustainable producer of USDA organic, animal-friendly natural livestock products”: www.yelp.com/biz/black-eagle-farm-piney-river.
However, in November 2009, Humane Farm Animal Care, which had previously certified Black Eagle as a “humane” egg producer, revoked the farm’s humane certification following suspension in October.
In September 2010, Quality Assurance International (QAI), the organic certifier of Black Eagle Farm-Piney River Organics under the USDA’s National Organic Program, confirmed to Virginia attorney, Gina Schaecher, that QAI had sent letters of noncompliance to Black Eagle Farm stating that its organic certification would be suspended if the farm did not bring its operation into compliance with the USDA’s National Organic Program. As a result, Black Eagle voluntarily surrendered its organic certification.
According to attorney Gina Schaecher, who initiated the investigation of Black Eagle Farm in January 2010: “QAI then sent a complaint, reporting the compliance issues to the National Organic Program.” About a month later, QAI got a call from A Bee Organic, another organic certification agency, who said that Black Eagle was “again seeking organic certification, through a new certifier, A Bee Organic.”
On September 20, 2010, A Bee Organic, based in California, told Schaecher that on August 3, 2010, it had certified Piney River Farm, LLC (previously known as Piney River Organics, LLC) as compliant with CFR 7 Part 205, the United States organic regulations, for “production of pullets [young female chickens] and layer hens, and handling of eggs.”
Notwithstanding, in August 2010, Humane Farm Animal Care concluded that a set of documents obtained by Schaecher under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) had assisted its decision not to recertify Black Eagle-Piney River as a “humane” farm under HFAC’s Certified Humane Raised & Handled program. At this writing, Black Eagle Farm is raising and housing “organic” chickens and selling “certified organic” eggs to customers through retail outlets under the Piney River Farm name. It is also engaged in bankruptcy proceedings.
Black Eagle is not presently certified as a “humane” farm under any humane-certification agency that we know of.
What did the FOIA documents reveal about Black Eagle Farm’s “organic, free-range, cage-free” hens?
On December 1, 2009, the Virginia Department for Animal and Food Industry Services filed a RECORD OF COMPLAINT citing dogs on the Black Eagle Farm property “without any provision for adequate care” and “various species of agricultural animals apparently receiving minimal care” and indications that “Nelson County animal control is not responsive to public concerns regarding this property, and may be in collusion with the property’s current manager.”
On December 10, 2009, Daniel A. Kovich, DVM, MPH, Staff Veterinarian for Animal Care and Health Policy with the VA Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, sent an email to his colleagues stating that “Black Eagle Farm, located in Nelson County, is currently undergoing foreclosure” and that Nelson County animal control, as well as his office, had been receiving “numerous calls” regarding the condition of the sheep and working sheep dogs on the property.
Dr. Kovich went on to say that while investigating these complaints, a Nelson County animal control officer had discovered “that a flock of approximately 25,000 organic laying hens had been without feed for five days,” and that farm management also reported it had “euthanized” approximately the same number of birds due to” lack of resources.” He said the farm “did receive a shipment of cracked corn yesterday to feed the birds until a more complete ration can be provided.”
Dr. Kovich concluded his email by saying that, at the request of Nelson County, “the Staff Veterinarian for Animal Care and the Lynchburg Regional Veterinary Supervisor will visit the farm on December 16th in order to advise the county as to the condition of the agricultural and companion animals on the property and recommend disposition.”
On December 16, 2009, Rachel M. Touroo, DVM, Staff Veterinarian for Animal Care, VA Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, visited the farm and reported her observations to Sandy Solar of Nelson County Animal Control. Among the discoveries she cited were numerous animals, including dogs, suffering from lameness, malnutrition, emaciation, lack of veterinary care and general squalor including moldy hay for the sheep and goats. Concerning the “organic” chickens, Dr. Touroo wrote:
It appears that the flock of 25,000 free-range laying hens was not being provided with necessary feed as a few birds from each house were found to be extremely thin to emaciated. . . . It was reported that the birds were without food for 7 days at the beginning of November and again without food for 5 days at the beginning of December. The farm manager also stated during the inspection that the birds underwent a forced molting 5 weeks ago and at this time they were without food for 2 weeks. . . . It appeared that mortality rate was higher than reported as in one small area of one house I observed at least 8 carcasses and only 1 deceased chicken was recorded for that day.
What did the Virginia Staff Veterinarians for Animal Care Services DO for the thousands of hens who were suffering and dying at Black Eagle Farm? Did they help them?
Following is a condensed summary of the emails that went back and forth among the VA Staff Veterinarians for Animal Care in December 2009. Bracketed terms represent clarifications by United Poultry Concerns. For example, the term “euthanize” as used by these veterinarians does not mean providing a humane, compassionate death for the hens.
December 16, 2009. Dr. Kovich to his Veterinary Services colleagues : “Dr. Touroo visited Black Eagle Farm today. She indicated that there were still problems with the poultry flock. They were without feed for seven days in early November and then for 5 days in early December. Dr. Touroo indicated that they look thin, with very prominent keels [breast bones], and depressed. The flock will probably be euthanized [killed] soon and new ones brought in. Animal control, on Dr. Touroo’s advice, indicated that they must have a veterinarian evaluate the flock and its feeding by next week. The owner [Dr. Ralph Glatt] seemed quasi-cooperative. A visit [by a VA Staff Veterinarian for Animal Care] may still be warranted, but if they get a [private, non-industry] vet out soon it may not be necessary, I recommend that you contact Officer Solar and discuss a game plan. Dr. Touroo will contact you shortly.”
December 17, 2009. Dr. Touroo to Dr. Donald Hopson : “I am trying to help Black Eagle Farm find a poultry vet they can use as well as a general livestock vet for their sheep, goats, pigs, and cattle. Are you aware of any in the area that would be willing to go out to BEF in Nelson County?”
December 17, 2009. Dr. Hopson to Dr. Touroo : “I have no one in mind, perhaps Dr. Ruth will. I do not know of any private poultry vets – just industry poultry vets and they tend to not want to assist non-commercial or non-integrated [smaller, independent] poultry producers.”
December 18, 2009. Dr. Charles Broaddus to Drs. McNeill, Kovich, and Wilkes : Since the “farm was unable to feed their laying hens for a number of days and are planning on re-stocking after they depopulate the current flock, the recommendation was made for them to seek ‘expert’ consultation. . . . . Dr. Chris McNeill, who visited the farm today informed me that the farm has very nice facilities. He said they have 4 layer houses, with a capacity of 12,500 [hens] each, but just 2 are stocked right now. The set-up is that the birds are on the floor with nesting boxes.”
December 21, 2009. Dr. Chris McNeill to Drs. Kovich and Touroo : “I spoke with Dr. Bill Pierson at the VMRCVM [Virginia-Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine] this AM concerning Black Eagle Farm. I later spoke with Dr. Larson-Emeritus Professor who relayed that he and Dr. Paul Ruszler-Active Emeritus Faculty have both spoken with Mr. Dobbs at the Farm. I relayed the concerns that the Dept had in relation to the birds & their feeding. Due to the birds moving out on Dec. 27 to go to rendering in N.C. [North Carolina], Dr. Larson did not see a great need to visit the farm this week.”
December 21, 2009. Dr. McNeill to John Dobbs, Black Eagle Farm manager : “Here is some info. I said I would forward your way. The samples I took on Friday will be shipped to the Harrisonburg Lab today. You should receive the results later this week via fax and by mail. Have a Merry Christmas.”
December 22, 2009. John Dobbs to Dr. McNeill : “I got a call yesterday from Cal Larson and Cal said that we are fine since we are depop [getting rid of the hens] as soon as Sunday and they don’t need to come out. I just want to make sure that this is right and I am not misunderstanding.”
December 22, 2009. Dr. McNeill to John Dobbs at Black Eagle : “I have passed this info. along to the Richmond office and have heard no objections. From my conversation with him, he is planning a visit after the first of the year.”
What does this email correspondence mean?
It means that from Dec. 1 to Dec. 27, 2009, apart a single shipment of corn for the starving hens on Dec. 9 – eight days after the Complaint against Black Eagle was recorded by the Office of Veterinary Services, followed by a visit to the farm by Staff Veterinarian Rachel Touroo on Dec. 16 – fifteen days after the Complaint was recorded, and then a visit by Dr. Chris McNeill on Dec. 18, the state veterinary staff and farm management did nothing but put the hens on a more nutritional mash until killing them – “The birds are currently on a standard layer ration, and albeit light, are apparently in reasonable body condition” (Dec. 21).
Black Eagle Farm was permitted to bring in new hens as soon as the existing birds were gone. Ten pages of disease information records from the Office of Laboratory Services regarding tissue samples taken from the birds at the farm in December 2009 were excluded as “privileged” from the FOIA documents provided by the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to attorney Gina Schaecher on January 19, 2010.
What Can I Do?
An undated Black Eagle Farm website page titled “Piney River Organics LLC: Organic Year-Round Supply of Free-Range Brown Eggs” says the farm is selling eggs to Whole Foods Market, My Organic Market, and Ukrop’s Homestyle Foods in Virginia, Washington DC and Maryland. An operating report for the farm in June 2010 showed Black Eagle was also selling eggs to a Washington DC restaurant called Zola, Boonsboro Country Club in Central Virginia, and Marriott. If you see these eggs in retail outlets, let the store manager know about Black Eagle’s recent history.
As part of our ongoing investigation of Black Eagle Farm, we encourage people in the area to visit the farm and insist on seeing all of the birds inside all of the buildings. People are encouraged to contact Black Eagle with their questions and concerns and request a written reply. Interestingly, a message has been added to Black Eagle Farm’s website at www.blackeaglefarm.com. “For the health & safety of the animals & staff, visitors may only come to the Farm Store during specified hours and are not allowed elsewhere on the farm.”
Dr. Ralph Glatt, Owner
Black Eagle Farm
596 Martin Lane
Piney River, VA 22964
We also suggest that you write letters to:
1) The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and ask what they are presently doing to help the hens at Black Eagle Farm and what they will do if Black Eagle decides to liquidate all of its birds if the farm shuts down.
2) Nelson County Animal Control, who was advised by Dr. Rachel Touroo on Dec. 16, 2009 “to perform unannounced inspections to ensure that adequate and necessary care is being provided to these animals on a routine basis.” Ask how this recommendation is being implemented on behalf of the farm’s “organic, cage-free” hens. Always request substantive, written replies.
Daniel A, Kovich, DVM, MPH
Staff Veterinarian for Animal Care and Health Policy
Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services
Division of Animal & Food Industry Services
PO Box 1163
Richmond, VA 23218
Phone: 804-786-2483. Fax: 804-371-2380
Officers Sandy Solar and Carla Thompson
Nelson County Office of Animal Control
PO Box 336
Lovington, VA 22949
Please send any replies you receive to United Poultry Concerns. Thank you.