Big meat producers have responded to consumer demand by marketing products as “natural,” “humanely raised,” “organic,” or “cage free,” but those labels often don’t mean much at all.
Now one chicken supplier for Perdue Farms, the third largest poultry producer in the US, has gone public to reveal how bad life really is for his “humanely raised” chickens.
J. Craig Watts let a group called Compassion in World Farming film inside the North Carolina farm where he raises around 720,000 chickens for Perdue each year and has been supplying the poultry giant for nearly 22 years. What the video shows is disconcerting, from overcrowding in the chicken barns to the poor health of chickens.
Watts decided to go public out of frustration over the company’s marketing. Back in 2012, he saw a commercial from Perdue in which Chairman Jim Perdue walks through a company chicken farm while extolling the virtues of its “humane” treatment of chickens. The chickens looked healthy and clean with plenty of space to move and immaculate facilities to grow in. When Watts saw the video, he was furious.
“My jaw dropped. It was one of those moments where I realised they were selling something that they are not,” Watts told Business Insider.
Perdue has asserted that the video of Watts’ farm does not reflect its standards and that the issues shown in the video were specific to Watts. Perdue enlisted food industry-funded group Center For Food Integrity to review the video, which it found does not portray the everyday conditions at “a properly managed poultry house.” The National Chicken Council, which represents the US chicken industry, has responded by calling the issues in the video “cases of mismanagement.” Watts has rejected the claims.
Whatever the case, it’s clear that “humanely raised” is used loosely.
Here’s Perdue’s video showing what its farms are supposed to look like:
And here’s what one of Watts’ “chicken houses” looks like, with around 30,000 chickens packed into a tight space with barely any room to move.
In order to be a Perdue farmer, you must follow a strict set of guidelines that, according to Watts, dictate everything from what feed you give chickens to what space they are supposed to be in to the name brand on your equipment. Watts called its control of the “independent” farmers “100%.”
Watts says Perdue has consistently ranked him as either an “above average” or “well above average” farmer.
The process starts when Perdue ships newly born chicks to its contracted farms. Whatever condition the chicks are brought in is what Watts has to deal with. They are often unhealthy, many come in with diseases, and some are shipped on the verge of death, says Watts. According to a study by The University of Georgia, most poultry farmers experience a 3% mortality rate per flock, or about 900 chickens in each of Watts’ flocks (30,000 chickens).
Perdue’s chickens are raised to grow unnaturally large and fast. Perdue chickens reach market weight after 42 days, according to Watts. Heritage breeds take anywhere from 80 to 112 days to mature, according to the ASPCA. This is par for the course for the whole industry, which has pushed to accelerate growth rates so chickens get fatter, faster. The high growth rate makes it difficult for chickens to breathe and walk. None can fly.
In addition to being crowded, the chicken barn is exceptionally dirty. It is filled with litter, feces, and urine. It is sometimes years before the floor is cleaned for a flock, says Watts.
The dirty, overcrowded conditions at Watts’ barns have left the chickens’ bellies raw and red. Most of the chickens have a massive bedsore.
Perdue’s chicken is sold under a USDA program called “Process Verified,” which supposedly confirms that chickens are raised according to multiple standards, including “humanely raised.” The program calls for site checks at Perdue facilities and periodic audits to ensure conditions comply.
Leah Garces, the USA director at Compassion In World Farming, has said the USDA verification means little unless it is backed up by a third party animal welfare certification like the Global Animal Partnership, Certified Humane, or Animal Welfare approved.
Among the claims that Perdue makes about its chicken are: “cage free,” “humanely raised,” “all vegetarian diet,” “no animal by-products,” and “no antibiotics.”
To be fair, Perdue’s claims, in regards to animal by-products, diet, and antibiotics are accurate. Perdue took its chicks off antibiotics earlier this year, according to NPR.
The “cage free” claim doesn’t necessarily mean chickens roam freely, though. The cramped and overcrowded nature of the barn leaves the chickens with almost no room to move, which seems to contradict the assertion that the chickens are “humanely raised.”
The gap between Perdue’s alleged practices and its labels has not gone unnoticed. This past fall, Perdue and Kroger
settled lawsuits filed by the Humane Society to remove “humanely raised” from their Harvestland and Simple Truth chicken brands. Despite the settlement, the companies haven’t acknowledged any wrongdoing or admitted the labels are misleading.
The chickens can barely walk due to the lack of space in the facilities, their high growth rate, and the disproportionate way their breasts develop. Most spend the last weeks of their lives sitting in the waste or 80% of the time, according to Compassion in World Farming.
In addition to calling Watt’s farm an exception, Perdue has asserted that it’s always available to provide expert assistance to growers on issues they feel are not being addressed. The company conducts audits of its contracted farms through the USDA auditing process as well as their internal audits. These audits, however, are not of every farm. Instead, they only cover a “representative sample,” and auditors only grade based on what they see on the day they are there.
Perdue Spokeswoman Julie DeYoung maintains that the company is looking into ways to improve the process, either through more oversight or increased audits.
“We are still in the process of understanding why the conditions in the video are what they are and what needs to be done going forward to assist the farmer or improve oversight,” DeYoung says.
Watts has rejected both Perdue and the National Chicken Council’s claims, citing his long history with Perdue as one of its best growers. According to Watts, the flock featured in the video won 2nd place at Perdue’s breeding tournament, where farmers’ flocks are graded by Perdue’s management for adhering to the company’s guidelines.
Watts says that he has already begun to experience the expected backlash from Perdue. Watts says he is ready.
“This is long overdue. I know where I’ve been and what I’ve done. These sons of guns need a reality check,” Watts says.
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