LEWISTON — Maine Contract Farming will pay $34,674.11 in fines and restitution in response to cruelty to animal charges at one of their egg farms in Turner.
The company will also donate $100,000 to the Maine Department of Agriculture to help monitor egg farms in the state. That's designed to improve the lot of egg-laying hens across Maine and prevent situations like those uncovered by an animal rights group at the Turner Egg farm in April 2009.
"These chickens are better off now because of this agreement," Assistant District Attorney Andrew Robinson said.
According to the negotiated settlement between Maine Contract Farming and the state, the company admitted responsibility for 10 counts of animal cruelty. According to the settlement, the company paid $2,500 in fines plus $967.41 in restitution per count — a total of $25,000 in fines and $9,674.11 in restitution.
It stems from a 2008-2009 hidden camera investigation by animal rights activist group Mercy For Animals. An undercover investigator for the group was hired by the company and documented instances of animals being mistreated and poorly handled. The group posted video from the hidden camera to its website, www.mercyforanimals.org.
The videos led to a state investigation of the egg farm. The Maine Department of Agriculture and its Animal Welfare Program executed a search warrant on April 1, 2009, raiding the Plains Road facility. Workers shot photos and video, and seized both dead and live chickens.
Robinson said the state has been working with Maine Contract Farming since the raid. He filed a complaint in Maine District Court on Friday and presented the settlement to Judge Rick E. Lawrence on Monday morning.
The settlement also requires Maine Contract Farming to give state investigators regular access to their facilities, improve staff training and retain a veterinarian to treat the birds.
Christine Fraser, veterinarian with the state's Department of Agriculture's animal welfare program, said the settlement will mean better treatement for Maine animals. Most importantly, it allows for better monitoring of Maine egg farms going forward.
"In a time of limited budgets, our staff size has been limited," she said. "But this $100,000, I hope this helps give us more hours to do more inspections. If we are out there more often, we'll be able to stop things before they get this bad. We might be able to just give some direction short of it becoming a violation and say, 'Don't do that. Do this instead.'"
Nathan Runkle, director of Mercy for Animals, said the decision was a landmark.
"We've had companies agree to a $100,000 settlement before, this had the added fines and restitution," Runkle said. "From a financial perspective, it's the largest settlement I've seen."
It's having an impact. Since the investigation, several states have approved bans on battery cages — the kinds used at Maine Contract Farming. Those are wire cages designed to hold five hens, and the Turner farm held roughly 16,000 cages, a total of 81,000 caged chickens in one barn.
Still, Runkle said it points up the need for better animal cruelty laws.
"But every time we go in and do this kind of investigation, we find these abuses," Runkle said. "So it's more than just isolated instances. We hope that showing some of these cases will show just how current laws are and why they need to be changed."