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The Farmer Who Exposed Perdue’s Claims of "Humanely Raised" Chicken

Rachael writes on many subjects including literature, the law, and copyrights.

Here, as provided in his contract with Perdue, Watts autopsies dead birds for disease or abnormalities that might point to the cause of death.

Here, as provided in his contract with Perdue, Watts autopsies dead birds for disease or abnormalities that might point to the cause of death.

Thinking About Farm-Raised Chickens Conjures Up a Serene Picture

When you think of chickens being raised on farms, you might think of dozens of plump chickens grazing in open grassy land, clucking around excitedly, and scampering toward the farmer as he sprinkles their feed.

It's a nice thought, but it's not even close to today's reality if you are in business with the big poultry companies.

The average life span of a chicken being raised for its meat is between six and eight weeks.

In the old days, it would take up to 120 days (17 weeks) for a chicken to mature and fatten up enough to be ready for market. Today, that timetable is cut down to less than 45 days because the chickens are "bred" to grow big and to grow fast.

One has to wonder what substances and shortcuts companies use to accomplish this feat while still calling the process "all-natural" and "antibiotic-free."

If you were a chicken, how would you want to spend your day?

If you were a chicken, how would you want to spend your day?

Although chickens are also raised for their eggs, this article will discuss only those chickens that are raised for their meat on industrialized factory farms. These farms are usually under contract to large poultry companies.

The Truth About Perdue's Chicken Empire

The patriarch of the family, Arthur Perdue, started the company in 1920, as an actual family farm. In the 1950s, his son Frank Perdue took over running the business. Frank Perdue's slogans in 1970s commercials were wholesome and believable, and added to the family empire's wealth.

In 1991, Jim Perdue, Frank's son, took over as Chairman of Perdue Farms. He replaced his father in the company's commercials in 1994. These somewhat corny commercials still put across the same type of message: "We raise the best chickens." Meanwhile, the company had expanded into a vertically integrated chain of enterprises including stock breeding and animal feed.

Perdue Claimed Chickens Were "Humanely Raised" and "Antibiotic Free"

In 2010, celebrating 90 years in business, Perdue announced the first USDA "Process Verified Program" while still professing "cage-free," "all veggie feed" and "humanely raised" chickens. To my recollection, Perdue had been using the buzz word “antibiotic-free” since 2002 or so.

In 2014, Perdue Farms announced that it had stopped its practice of injecting an antibiotic called Gentamicin into ready-to-hatch eggs in their chicken hatcheries. The company said it wanted “to move away from conventional antibiotic use” because of “growing consumer concern and our own questions about the practice.”

So—should anyone have believed these claims? Did Perdue move away from antibiotic use and towards humane farming?

Vaguely worded, Perdue's claim of "USDA Process Verified" left a lot to the imagination.

Vaguely worded, Perdue's claim of "USDA Process Verified" left a lot to the imagination.

But Who Raised the Chickens?

Whether or not Perdue's chickens were the best chickens, Perdue did not actually raise them itself. It couldn't possibly, given the demand for chicken in the consumer market.

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No, Perdue subcontracted out the baby chicks to farmers who owned large factory farms to raise them for Perdue. In many cases, because Perdue paid well and the work was steady, these farmers went into debt in order to set themselves up as industrial chicken farmers.

After the contracts were signed, all the farmer had to do was raise the chickens the "Perdue way," using Perdue's chicken feed, and allow access for company veterinarians to do medical checkups and give medications.

How often did the vet visit these farms? That was not disclosed. But the video below suggests that vets stayed away from Perdue subcontractor Craig Watts's farm for a period exceeding the lifespan of the average broiler chicken.

The videos below document that his chickens' oversized breasts made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to walk. The over-crowded, confined living conditions are very hard to look at without cringing.

Outraged by Perdue's Claims of "Cage Free" and "Humane" Conditions

All the claims by Perdue rubbed Craig Watts the wrong way. Although his farm had been in his family since the 1700s, Craig Watts didn't take out large loans to industrialize his farm until 1992 when he signed on as a subcontractor for Perdue Farms. Bound by a contract to raise the chickens the Perdue way, Watts evidently followed the company guidelines to the letter, without using discretion or common sense to give the chickens a few basic necessities.

For 22 years, he made his living raising over 700,000 chickens per year for Perdue, daily watching many of them suffer and die. From 2012 to 2014, Watts says he raised mostly "antibiotic-free" flocks for Perdue, plus a few other flocks that received low doses of the antibiotic narasin.

For many years, he did not publicly complain to any humane society, or make a tell-all video, or give an interview decrying the conditions of the chickens, the Perdue methods, or the mortality rate on farms like his.

Then one day, after seeing a Perdue promotion that touted that they were "the only chicken producer sporting the USDA stamp of approval, raising chickens cage-free and in humane conditions," Watts says he decided to let people know the truth.

For over four months, Watts invited an animal activist group called "Compassion in World Farming" to document their findings of his four chicken houses, each crowded with over 80,000 chickens.

The following video has been viewed by over one million YouTube viewers. After Craig Watts had his YouTube account suspended, other people have helped out by uploading his videos to keep the word circulating. The video below was posted by Animal Outlook as part of a series.

Video Alert: Graphic Content

I can tell you that this video made a tremendous impression on me so that I will never look at any kind of chicken the same way again - dead, alive, store-bought, "farm-raised," "free-range" or caged.

Another Contractor Had Blown the Whistle

Earlier, in May 2010, another Perdue-related video was posted: "Perdue Fired This Farmer For Not 'Upgrading' to Dark Tunnel Chicken Sheds"

After viewing both of these videos, I understood why Craig Watts wanted to expose Perdue for lying about their claims on their package labels.

See what you think.

Warning: Graphic Content

Earlier Video by Humane Society

Claims backed by videos were not new. In 2010, this two-minute video detailed a tour by the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) showing the conditions they found. Not much of anything was done between 2010 and 2014, and it seems likely that not much has been done since.

Class Action Lawsuit About Perdue's "Humanely Raised" Claim

The Humane Society filed a class action lawsuit was filed alleging that Perdue was misleading the public by putting the words "humanely raised" on their chicken labels. As reported in the New York Times, Perdue settled by agreeing to remove the “humanely raised” line from some packaging, even as it denied wrongdoing.

How Could This Have Been Going On?

If you are like me, when you viewed the videos above, you found a chicken farm like this appalling. If I raised chickens in such conditions, I'd be embarrassed to allow any organization, let alone someone with a video camera, visit the property to show them how I was not being so humane in raising chickens.

Because consumers favor large meaty chicken breasts, the chickens are bred to grow that way. Therefore it is hard for them to carry their own weight on their short legs. They walk a few painful steps and keel over onto ground that is contaminated with the ammonia-laden excrement of all the chickens. This filth eats away at their skin and feathers on their underbellies, leaving them with red, raw, weepy sores.

One would think that such illnesses would require visits from a Perdue veterinarian, but we don't know if any veterinarians were called or showed up.

Craig Watts the Whistleblower: 'I Would Do It Again"

Within hours of the uploading to YouTube of Watt's video on December 4, 2014, Perdue reacted swiftly. Perdue management descended on Craig Watts's farm, informing him they were conducting an "animal welfare audit." He feared they would find a way to put him out of business.

But actually, as he told the Society of Professional Journalists, he never felt threatened. "They (Perdue) did put me on a performance improvement plan. It meant more scrutiny for a while but then miraculously it got lifted. After that I raised three more flocks and then I decided I was done." He took a job instead with the Socially Responsible Agricultural Project, an activist "anti-corporate, pro-family farm" organization. Watts said:

I can tell you after I saw that [June 2012 Perdue] commercial I could hardly sleep at night. Once we released that video I was expecting to get fired, yet it felt like the world got lifted off my shoulders. I was described as a rogue farmer in the media but it is a lot easier to fix me than to fix the system. I would do it again.

Antibiotics on Farms Can Be Inhumane for People Too

Antibiotic use on chicken farms leads to inhumane conditions for chickens, because antibiotics allow chickens to be raised so quickly and intensively that they are too heavy to stand up. But antibiotics on chicken farms are also a concern for human health.

A 2014 investigation and report by Donald Kennedy, a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner, found that the top five poultry producers—Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue Farms, George’s, and Koch Foods—routinely medicated their chickens with antibiotics even when they weren't sick.

Kennedy said, "This creates a systematic source of antibiotic resistance in bacteria, the risks of which are not fully understood. This could be an even larger piece of the antibiotic-resistance problem than I had thought."

But antibiotics are still present today in chickens and chicken meat despite laws meant to phase them out. A long list of antibiotics are still used on chickens, some with no definite time limit stated for starting and stopping their use, despite efforts by the USDA to develop voluntary guidelines for defining the time for which an antibiotic can be used.

Although antibiotic residues are now illegal in chicken meat, they are still occasionally detected there. But the real threat to human health—more significant than the presence of the antibiotics themselves—is the presence of bacteria that have developed resistance to antibiotics. As the Antibiotics Off the Menu Coalition says:

There is a U.S. law that there can be no antibiotic residues on meat. The real concern is the presence of bacteria on meat and poultry that are resistant to antibiotics and can make people sick. Meat and poultry may be deemed “antibiotic-free” but still contribute to the health threat of antibiotic resistance.

This label from a Perdue's Roaster asserts the meat is vegetarian and cage free.  And "enhanced"!

This label from a Perdue's Roaster asserts the meat is vegetarian and cage free. And "enhanced"!

Claims Labels Make for Supermarket Chicken

Here are a collection of labels from chicken sold in supermarkets. You see the terms "cage-free," "no antibiotics," "no added hormones," "all natural," "organic"—what do they all mean? Now as in 2014, the terms are slippery.

An ad from Dierberg's Market near St. Louis, Missouri, in December, 2011, making at least five different claims for this chicken meat offered at just 79 cents per pound.

An ad from Dierberg's Market near St. Louis, Missouri, in December, 2011, making at least five different claims for this chicken meat offered at just 79 cents per pound.

Trader Joe's Organic Chicken Breasts

Trader Joe's Organic Chicken Breasts

Trader Joe's 2022 advertisement reads:

Trader Joe’s Organic Chicken Breasts come from chickens raised specifically for us primarily on family farms, under the strict USDA guidelines for Organic Certification. In accordance with these guidelines, the chickens are fed a vegetarian diet of only certified organic corn and organic soybean meal, and they are never given antibiotics or fed animal fats or by-products.

Words Companies Use to Describe Chicken

Let's examine the definitions of these words used on labels and get to the root of their meanings. We start with terms that have some government definition or enforcement and move to the most general and useless claims.

Organic

"Organic" livestock farming, unlike some terms, is defined by the USDA. Here is a USDA-posted guide for raising organic chickens. "Organic" means chickens have never been treated with antibiotics, they have eaten only certified organic feed grown without fertilizers or pesticides, and they have significant access to the outdoors. Vaccinations are permitted under this USDA heading.

Free Range

The USDA's definition of "free range" is loose and does not specify the amount of time chickens spend outside, the size of the opening they use to get outside, or the amount of floor space they have. Not all "free-range" chicken is organic, but all organic chicken is free-range.

Raised Without Antibiotics

This label means the chicken has never received any medication that could be classified as an antibiotic. Other drugs to treat parasites or other health risks are permitted under this USDA heading.

All Vegetarian Diet

Even though almost all poultry feed consists of corn and soybeans, sometimes it contains processed meat and poultry by-products. If the feed is free of meat and by-products, it can have this USDA label.

Grass Fed

USDA has a definition of grass-fed meat (but does not formally enforce it). To qualify for this labeling, the animal must feed only on grass and forage. The animal must have continuous access to pasture during the growing season.

Natural

The USDA has asked for comments on what the word "natural" means but does not enforce any definition in detail.

Certified Humane

This heading doesn't fall under the USDA's purview. A nonprofit organization bestows this labeling when its standards have been met for handling, transporting, raising and slaughtering of any animal. It is not government-approved.

Cage Free

Although there is a movement toward a meaningful definition of "cage free" for egg-laying chickens, a label saying chickens raised for meat are "cage free" doesn't mean much. Meat chickens are rarely caged until they are shipped. Even Craig Watts's chickens could be called "cage free."

Farm-Raised

This USDA term applies to all chickens since they are all raised on some kind of farm. It is a meaningless, deceptive label meant to garner consumer trust.

No Hormones Added

The FDA does not allow livestock to be given hormones or any product to make them grow unnaturally. Since such a practice is against the law, the label is redundant. The words look good on products and make for good advertising claims.

Antibiotic-free

This generic label, not a USDA-defined one, is not the same as "raised without antibiotics." It means there is no antibiotic left in the meat at the time of slaughter, which is a legal requirement. Antibiotics can be used if the administration of antibiotics stops shortly before an animal is slaughtered. "Antibiotic-free" is a marketing ploy, a buzz word that looks good on a product label.

Enhanced

"Enhanced" means that some kind of broth or salty solution was injected into the chicken to give it more flavor and moistness. People who are watching their salt intake should take notice of the high sodium content on any "enhanced" product which usually exceeds the Recommended Daily Value. This is probably one of the most deceptive processing practices in the industry because it ups the weight of the product, making the consumer think he or she is getting more for their money. All the consumer is getting is more salt.

How Do You Feel About "Humane" Chicken Farming?

I can tell you that all of these videos made a tremendous impression on me that will forever taint the way I think of chickens being raised.

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© 2014 Rachael O'Halloran

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