Target scrambles to line up new egg suppliers

November 21, 2011 - 8:55 PM

MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Egg shortages were reported at some Target stores after the retailer ended its relationship with a producer accused of animal cruelty, and the company scrambled Monday to line up new suppliers before Thanksgiving.

Shortages were reported at stores as far away as Chicago and North Carolina after Minneapolis-based Target Corp. decided to quit doing business with Litchfield-based Sparboe Farms. An undercover video shot by animal rights activists at farms in three states revealed mistreatment to hens and chicks that even Sparboe described as sickening.

McDonald's Corp. and Cargill Inc. were the first major customers to announce Friday that they had cut off Sparboe, followed quickly by Target and the Minnesota chain Lunds and Byerly's. It wasn't clear whether any other national or regional chains were affected. Officials with some other major chains said they didn't buy from Sparboe and anticipated no shortages for the holidays.

Target sold Sparboe eggs nationwide under the Sparboe brand and Target's own Market Pantry and Archer Farms brands, Target spokeswoman Jessica Carlson said. She said she couldn't give details on where the shortages were happening or whether they were worse at stores in certain parts of the country.

Some Target stores offer another brand, Eggland's Best, but that's mostly sold out, Carlson said.

She said she didn't know when the stores would be fully stocked again, but "we know and recognize that this is an important shopping time for guests, so we are working diligently to get eggs back in our stores as quickly as we can."

Sparboe, which describes itself as the fifth-largest shell egg producer and marketer in the United States, sells eggs under its own brand and packaged as store brands. Spokesman Charles Sanger declined to say whether any other major customers had dropped his company, citing a policy against disclosing "confidential, competitive information such as this."

Eden Prairie-based SuperValu Inc. — which owns or supplies more than 4,000 stores nationwide including Albertson's, Acme, Cub Foods, Jewel-Osco, Shaw's and Save-a-Lot — didn't carry Sparboe eggs in its company-owned stores but has suspended purchases from Sparboe for its wholesale business, spokesman Mike Siemienas said Monday.

"Fortunately, we have multiple suppliers in our supply chain so we are able to ensure our customers have eggs in their stores for this holiday season," he said.

Officials with national grocery chains Kroger Co., Costco Wholesale Corp. and Safeway Inc. and Edina-based wholesaler and retailer Nash-Finch Co. did not immediately return calls inquiring about their supplies.

Among Midwestern chains, Hy-Vee, Inc., based in West Des Moines, Iowa, is still using Sparboe and has not experienced any shortages, spokeswoman Ruth Comer said. Hy-Vee takes the allegations "very seriously" but won't make any decisions on its relationship with Sparboe until it sees the results of Hy-Vee's own investigation by third-party auditors, she said.

St. Cloud-based Coborn's Inc. buys its eggs from Crystal Farms and "it's business as usual for us," spokeswoman Emily Coborn said.

The video shot by Mercy for Animals showed a worker swinging a bird around by its feet, hens packed into cramped cages, male chicks being tossed into plastic bags to suffocate and workers cutting off the tips of chicks' beaks.

Sparboe said in a statement Monday it's creating a task force to review its food safety, animal care and sustainability practices. The task force also will develop best practices in those areas for all the company's production and processing facilities in Minnesota, Iowa and Colorado, the company said in a statement. The task force will include three employees and three outside experts.

Along with four firings announced last week, Sparboe said a production manager also has been relieved of his duties.

"Our investigation is ongoing and any additional employees involved will he held accountable," president and owner Beth Sparboe Schnell said in the statement.

She said the acts shown on the video violate the company's posted animal care policies and procedure. Sanger said those principles have been in practice and posted at Sparboe locations for about two years. He said barn workers go through four to six hours of training and receive refresher training every six months.

Schnell also said Sparboe passed four third-party animal welfare audits last week and has brought in several more experts to do an audit on food safety. The Food and Drug Administration said last week that inspectors found "serious violations" at five Sparboe facilities of federal regulations meant to prevent salmonella contamination. Schnell said the company has never had a single egg test positive for salmonella.