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Fire kills as many as 250,000 chickens at Dade City egg farm

The farm is operated by Mississippi-based Cal-Main, the largest producer and distributor of shell eggs in the United States, according to its website.
Fire crews put out the last flames early Thursday at a Dade City egg farm where fire destroyed three chicken barns.
Fire crews put out the last flames early Thursday at a Dade City egg farm where fire destroyed three chicken barns. [ Spectrum Bay News 9 ]
Published Dec. 17, 2020
Updated Dec. 17, 2020

DADE CITY — As many as 250,000 chickens may have been killed when fire swept through three barns at a Dade City egg farm early Thursday.

Crews from Pasco Fire Rescue arrived about 1 a.m. at Cal-Maine Foods, 41040 Simpson Farm Lane, and called for more help.

The property contains four large barns, two of which were lost in the fire. The effort to extinguish the flames was complicated by the explosion of propane tanks at the site, fire rescue officials said.

No one was injured and there was no immediate word on what started the fire. Fire officials are continuing to investigate.

The egg farm property once was owned by Simpson Farms Inc., operated by Florida Senate President Wilton Simpson. Simpson Farms still operates an egg farm 18 miles north of the Cal-Maine site in Trilby, where Simpson lives.

Mississippi-based Cal-Maine is the largest producer and distributor of shell eggs in the United States, according to its website, selling under brands including Egg-Land’s Best and Land O’ Lakes.

The company sold nearly one in five of all shell eggs in the country during 2020 and has a total flock of about 40 million layers and 11 million pullets and breeders, the website says.

Max Bowman, chief financial officer and vice president of Cal-Maine, said the Dade City farm only contains pullets, which are young birds that have not yet started producing eggs but have graduated from the hatchery. He estimates about two to three percent of the company’s pullets were lost in Thursday morning’s fire but that the loss is not expected to impact Cal-Maine’s egg production.

“We’re fully insured,” Bowman said, adding that the company’s bird and business income loss would be covered. He said he was grateful to the local emergency teams, as well as the company’s internal team, that responded to the fire.

Cal-Maine has come under fire from animal rights’ activists in the past who have accused the company of overcrowding and animal cruelty.

Bowman said the company follows all regulatory and industry guidelines regarding spacing at its farms. He said the cause of the fire is currently unknown, but the investigation is ongoing and the company plans to look at ways to decrease risks for the animals.

“Cal-Maine is a large public company and we endeavor to do things right,” Bowman said.

According to the Animal Welfare Institute, more than 1.6 million farm animals, the majority of them egg-laying hens, died in barn fires this year. Spokeswoman Marjorie Fishman said only one other barn fire has been recorded in Florida this year, a Palm City blaze which killed 23 animals.

The majority of barn fires are believed to have been caused by electrical issues or defective heating devices, according to an Animal Welfare Institute news release.

“It is completely unacceptable for the industry to tolerate massive numbers of animals burning to death when there are effective fire prevention and suppression strategies available,” farm animal program director for AWI Dena Jones said in the release.

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The department sent an inspector to Cal-Maine’s egg farm, which is located several miles from the facility that caught fire early Thursday morning. The inspection did not find any issues with the egg house, department spokesperson Franco Ripple said. Under state law, the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services only inspects egg houses and does not inspect chicken houses, meaning the Dade City farm is not subject to inspections.