The "Animal Care Certified" stamp on the grocery store egg cartons declared that the chickens were raised in humane conditions, but the tapes tell a different tale.
The videos -- shot by Takoma Park animal advocates who say they have spent years sneaking into local poultry farms -- show hens closely packed in wire "battery cages," some missing most of their feathers, with open sores and burned beaks, and dead fowl caged with the living.
In February, the videos prompted the group, Compassion Over Killing, to file a lawsuit in D.C. Superior Court against area retailers Giant Food, Brookville Supermarket and Lehman's Egg Service and the organization that administers the Animal Care Certified certification, United Egg Producers.
Giant recently agreed to drop the logo from egg cartons sold under its brand name while it reviews Compassion Over Killing's claims that the birds are kept in inhumane conditions.
The group, which seeks to ban the use of the label, will go forward with claims against the other parties, including United Egg Producers, which has filed a motion to dismiss the case. But animal advocates hailed the settlement with Giant as a first step toward their goal of ending the use of cages in the U.S. egg industry.
"I think that Giant deserves to be applauded for taking the step in the right direction," Paul Shapiro, the manager of the factory farming campaign for the Humane Society of the United States, said in an interview. "Of course, we would like to see Giant stop selling eggs from caged birds altogether."
The terms of the settlement reached this month forbid representatives of Compassion Over Killing and Giant from commenting on the case. But in an interview in June, the director of the advocacy group said volunteers have videotaped conditions over the past four years at three Maryland farms.
Erica Meier, the director, said then that conditions at the farms that produced the certified eggs were indistinguishable from those at farms that produced non-certified eggs. (Giant-branded eggs do not come from those farms.) She said the birds did not have enough space to spread their wings -- they are given as much width as a spread-out newspaper -- and had their beaks burned off to reduce aggression.
"These birds are suffering tremendously inside these cages, and many of them die due to the conditions," Meier said.
Last year, the Better Business Bureau's National Advertising Review Board ruled that the label was misleading.
Mitch Head, the spokesman for United Egg Producers, the industry's trade association, said that animal welfare experts had designed the certification standards and that the space was limited for a good reason.
"If you provide too much space to birds confined in a cage, they start to become territorial and start attacking each other," he said. As for the burning of beaks, "it's like trimming a fingernail. The very tip is like a hook or a dagger. It's done so that they don't attack each other and cause damage. It's not a painful process."
"They're kept just like every other farm in the country, as far as the generally accepted practices," Greg Clanton, a vice president at Ise America egg farm in Cecilton, one of the three farms where videotapes were made. "That's what I think they have the problem with: the industry as a whole."
Meier acknowledged as much in her June interview.
"Hopefully, we will someday get to that point where this is an illegal practice," Meier said of raising birds in battery cages. In most of Europe, for example, birds have more space. In Germany, Austria and Switzerland, battery cages have been banned.
But in the United States, where there is pressure is to keep the price of eggs down, producers have to find a balance, experts say.
"High bird density is the norm in egg production," Inma Estevez, an associate professor of poultry science at the University of Maryland, wrote in an e-mail. "This is precisely why egg prices are so low. There is a very easy solution, consumers need to start paying premium prices for eggs produced in lower density systems. . . . The problem is that when most consumers go to the supermarket, they choose the cheapest eggs."
There is some evidence that the trend may be changing. Some stores, such as Whole Foods Market, sell eggs only from birds raised on cage-free farms. The February 2005 issue of Egg Industry, a trade publication, identified cage-free production as the fastest-growing sector of the egg industry. For Shapiro, the settlement was another step.
"The fact that a retailer like Giant is taking this kind of a move is pretty big," Shapiro said. "Not only does it impact literally hundreds of millions of animals, but it's also a commodity that millions of Americans buy all the time."