Workers at one of the largest egg producers in Australia have been caught kicking, throwing and abusing hens in footage that is likely to spark a fresh debate about animal cruelty.
The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age have obtained video secretly recorded by animal rights activists in April and May, showing live chickens being abused at the Bridgewater Poultry farm in Victoria.
Bridgewater Poultry sells eggs under the labels Loddon Valley Eggs, Victorian Fresh Eggs and Country Fresh Eggs, and used to supply Woolworths and Coles. The farm made up about 10 per cent of the national egg market at its peak.
The video shows half a dozen workers manhandling live chickens before they are gassed.
In the footage, a worker picks up a live chicken, throws it into the air and then uses his hand to slap it across the room. Another throws a live bird onto the concrete floor with sufficient force to leave it maimed. Another worker attempts to drop kick a bird.
"I hate it when their heads come off," one female worker is heard saying.
"Yeah it feels good, look," the male worker replies.
"Oh you're cruel," the woman is heard saying another time, to which her male colleague can be heard laughing.
"Oh what are you doing pulling its f---ing head off for?" another worker complains.
The industry's own guidelines on best-practice on killing hens warns against mistreating animals before their deaths because as "it is well-known that catching and handling live birds can induce fear and cause pain as a result of bruising and broken bones".
Coles said it stopped stocking Bridgewater Poultry eggs in March when a product recall was issued after a salmonella outbreak at the farm.
Coles said it officially delisted Bridgewater Poultry as a supplier on May 24 with a spokeswoman saying the retailer was "passionate about responsible sourcing".
Woolworths said it also stopped taking eggs from the farm in March this year.
"Woolworths takes Animal Welfare incredibly seriously and works with its suppliers to uphold the highest standards. We currently do not source eggs from Bridgewater Poultry farm. We will provide any assistance required as the authorities investigate this matter," Woolworths said in a statement.
Bridgewater Poultry is owned by a consortium of farmers, including Victorian Farmers Federation Egg Group president Tony Nesci, who had seen the footage.
Mr Nesci said he was not responsible for the workers' treatment of the animals because they were contractors. He said the contractors had been hired because the farm was quarantined over the disease outbreak.
"Trying to get people to go into a quarantined farm is like trying to find gold nuggets in pig shit," he said.
"We in the egg industry are at the mercy of only a handful for people who are prepared to do this job. We were fortunate to find somebody who would do the job."
Mr Nesci said he was "livid at what's happened" and "horrified" by the footage but "took offence" at any suggestion he was responsible for what he described as the conduct of contractors. When asked to provide the name and contact details of the contractors, Mr Nesci replied: "I don't know who the contractors were.
"I am appalled by what happened but that doesn't make me responsible," he said. "I don't need a lecture on how to treat animals, especially from a bloody journalist.
"Stop trying to put the blame on us, they were responsible in their actions."
Rosko Osbourne from Animal Liberation NSW, who supplied the video, claimed the way the workers in the footage "blatantly abused" hens represented a broader problem in the egg industry.
"I believe that this very much represents the standard," he said.
"You can see by the way workers very overtly treat these animals in front of their peers that they feel there is nothing to hide or any punishment to come from it."
He also hit out at the practice of "depopulation" shown in the footage. Depopulation is the industry-approved method for killing so-called "spent" hens that are no longer laying eggs at their peak rates.
Because the industry considers it too expensive to slaughter and process the hens deemed no longer useful for egg laying, it has approved gassing as an acceptable way of killing spent hens.