Virginia farm supplies D.C. eateries despite animal-care violations

This article was originally published by on Thursday, Nov. 18, 2010.

By Katherine Reynolds Lewis

Mie N Yu, Potenza, Zola -- they're all among a movement in Washington culinary circles toward locally grown, all-natural ingredients.

Another thing they have in common: dealings with Black Eagle Farm, a producer in rural Virginia that was found to have violated animal-care statutes and that lost its organic and humane certifications. Last December, a Virginia state veterinary inspector found that many of the animals at the Nelson County farm were emaciated and in need of veterinary care; the farm's working dogs ate raw meat rather than appropriate food; and one hen house contained eight chicken carcasses.

"The place was completely filthy," said Karen Davis, president of United Poultry Concerns, a Machipongo, Va.-based animal rights group that reviewed state records and photographs of the farm. "The company just stopped feeding the birds."

The state investigation was sparked by "numerous complaints" about maltreated dogs, livestock, and poultry on the farm, which is about 45 miles southwest of Charlottesville. A dead goat was tied to a fence, according to the records, and six dogs were allegedly being locked in a trailer full of feces for four days without water, and at least one was dying. The allegations and findings are spelled out in state records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Gina Schaecher, general counsel for the Appalachian Great Pyrenees Rescue, based in Richmond, Va., which tried to rescue dogs on the farm.

"It was an ugly situation," said Woody Ward, a farmer who saw the dogs in the trailer, one dead after an apparent fight. "They were just kind of throwing meat into the trailer and it was nasty. Dogs were walking around in their own feces. The smell kind of hit us like a wall."

After the state descended on the unkempt farm, the organic police took note. Following the state's report, organic certifier Quality Assurance International threatened to suspend the farm's certification, prompting Black Eagle Farm to surrender it. The farm subsequently applied for certification with a new company, A Bee Organic, under the name Piney River Farms, Schaecher said.

Humane Farm Animal Care revoked its "certified humane" label for the farm after the conditions were revealed, followed by the American Humane Association certifying the farm as humane this year, according to sources. "It's misleading to the consumer who is willing to pay extra because they think they're getting animal products from a humane source," Schaecher said.

The findings on Black Eagle didn't please the proprietors of Mie N Yu, a Georgetown purveyor of innovative Asian fusion cuisine that boasts of using wholesome ingredients from farms that the chef and general manager have personally visited. "It makes a difference to know the farmer and listen to how they describe their products; we can then create dishes that best exemplify the unique flavors and textures that these meats have to offer," writes Chef Tim Miller on the Mie N Yu Web site.

The restaurant stopped buying from Black Eagle Farm last year, when it learned of the allegations, according to Mike Cherner, marketing and bar manager. "We kept an eye on the certifications when we could. We just have to order and relay the information as best we know it to our guests," he said, noting that the general manager responsible for the sourcing left a few months ago, for unrelated reasons. The farm's business with other D.C.-area outfits -- including D.C. Central Kitchen, Potenza, Zengo, and the J.W. Marriott -- is detailed in records of the bankruptcy proceeding that Black Eagle filed in a federal Virginia court in November 2009. TBD contacted regional Black Eagle customers identified in the papers and got comments only from Mie N Yu and D.C. Central Kitchen, which wasn't aware of the problems.

Nearly a year after the animal care violations were discovered, Black Eagle Farm owner Ralph Glatt is regrouping. His 2,400-acre property was sold at auction on Oct. 26 to repay a $5.29 million bank loan. The property fetched a total of $7.68 million from 15 different buyers in parcels that included riverfront property and an historic farmhouse. Glatt will receive the roughly $2.5 million in proceeds that exceed the amount owed to creditors, and has negotiated to purchase all the agricultural land from the buyer who won that parcel, according to Jim Woltz, president of Woltz & Associates, the Roanoke-based real estate auction company that performed the auction.

In an interview, Glatt said he was unaware of any mistreatment of animals last fall, saying he was in Europe from August to early December to raise funds to save the farm.

"We tried to do everything right; for the last 30 years we never had any issue whatsoever. We really prided ourselves that we were taking care of everything properly," he said. "Long before there were things like humane societies or organic movements, we were doing all these things."

Glatt said the chickens had been denied feed in order to force molting, a technique used to reduce egg production, and that he didn't know anything about dogs being held in a trailer without water until this reporter asked about the allegations.

"I only knew about one dog which had mange," he said, while acknowledging that his family remained in the U.S. last fall and saw hungry dogs coming to the house looking for food. "We were aware that they weren't being fed properly; that was being neglected every so often."

When he learned how many dogs an employee had allowed on the farm -- unvaccinated and un-socialized offspring of the farm's dogs -- he said he rounded them up and took them to animal shelters and rescue organizations earlier this year. "Ultimately it was my responsibility to check" what was happening on the premises, Glatt said.

Glatt acknowledged that the farm operated without an organic certification from roughly December 2009 to August 2010, continuing to sell non-organic to D.C. Central Kitchen, the J.W. Marriott, Potenza, Zengo, and Zola -- while losing Mie N Yu as a customer. "There was a gap because we didn't have any organic birds," he said. "We were selling to the D.C. stores the cage-free, all-natural eggs."

The situation exemplifies the difficulty even the most committed ethical eater faces when trying to consume organic, locally sourced, humanely produced foods. It's hard to verify that a farm's organic certification is up to date, and when violations are found by certifiers under the National Organic Program, it can take months or years before a farm's certification is yanked.

In a sense, the organic and sustainable food industry is a victim of its own success. As the business has grown, large agriculture companies and new producers have sought to take advantage of the higher prices and fatter profit margins -- sometimes without the same commitment to organic and humane values.

The allegations about Black Eagle managed to escape state inspection for some time. According to state records of citizen complaints, Nelson County dragged its heels in bringing official attention to conditions at the farm. In the first week of December 2009, state and county officials emailed back and forth about the situation, culminating in an e-mail from state veterinarian Rachel Touroo to a county leader, stating, "The lack of reliable information provided by your animal control staff makes it difficult for us to reassure the public that Nelson County is handling this case appropriately."

The following week, Touroo visited the farm and discovered that the flock of 25,000 laying hens had been without food for two weeks. The farm dogs were being fed raw meat that could contain pathogens, weren't receiving veterinary care, and several were very thin, she reported. Having identified four violations of animal care laws, she recommended that Glatt immediately feed the animals, provide veterinary care, and proceed by keeping feed records. She also recommended that county animal control continue to perform unannounced inspections.

Two days later, the state supervisor in the Lynchburg area visited and determined that the hens had begun to be fed and were about to be sold and killed, so no further action was taken.

Under state animal care laws, in general, "when we say a crime has not occurred that does not mean we feel the situation is ideal. It might be barely skating by," said Daniel Kovich, a staff veterinarian at the Virginia Department of Agriculture who oversaw the investigation. "They can't starve them to death, that's the threshold."

Glatt said that once the organic chicken flock was slaughtered, an examination of the birds showed that they were 99 percent feathered and over 3.5 pounds live weight: signs of good health for the breed. Going forward, he plans to force molting by placing the flock on a lighter feeding schedule rather than denying food altogether, and weigh the birds weekly.

"We're trying to record everything just in case somebody ever comes to say this or that, we can prove in writing and facts and figures what the truth is," he said, adding that all six of the farm and personal dogs have been vaccinated and sterilized. Currently, the farm has 36,000 chickens, 250 pigs and 200 head of cattle.

Observers concerned for the welfare of the dogs and farm animals were stunned that no further action was taken against Black Eagle -- a decision that would have fallen to county officials. "[County] animal control officers have primary responsibility for enforcement," said Kovich. "It's up to the locality to determine how to handle it."

Nelson County officials didn't return repeated calls seeking comment about how they handled the situation.

"The reason I would be resistant to someone like this ever being entrusted with animals is the amount of time this perpetuated itself," Schaecher said.