Here’s What Happens When a Big Ag Farmer Invites an Animal Welfare Group Into the Chicken Barn

Craig Watts blew the whistle on Perdue for the abusive practices it requires of contractors—and now the poultry company is investigating him.

(Photo: Hector Guerrero/Getty Images)

Dec 5, 2014· 2 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The visual language of farm-animal abuse videos is raw. The disturbing treatment of cattle or poultry may be explicit, but it’s never clearly depicted—grainy images, low light, awkward angles, and muffled sound are ubiquitous in footage shot during undercover operations.

That’s part of what made a video released this week from Compassion in World Farming so unique: The production value is exceptionally high. As the cameras show birds suffering throughout their short, painful lives, the focus shifts artfully, the camera drawing the viewer’s eye to the saddest moments: Birds unable to stand under the weight of oversized breasts, their stomachs burned bare of feathers thanks to the preponderance of urine and feces they sit upon.

This rare, high-quality footage was possible because of Craig Watts, who owns the North Carolina farm that has been in his family since the 1700s. He’s been raising broiler chickens for Perdue since 1992 and tells New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof that the company’s claim it treats birds humanely “couldn’t get any further from the truth.” The rare on-site access and on-the-record interview are his very public way of blowing the whistle on the poultry giant, which dictates how its contract farmers raise the birds that go into Perdue products.

The company responded by sending investigators to Watts’ farm on Wednesday—just hours after Kristof’s column ran, according to Christopher Leonard, author of The Meat Racket: The Secret Takeover of America's Food Business, who broke the news—to conduct an internal animal welfare audit. Perdue contends that the fault for the shocking treatment of the birds lies with Watts.

“What we saw on the video was very concerning, suggesting to us that the birds were not well taken care of,” Perdue spokesperson Julie DeYoung tells Leonard. “So it’s very appropriate for us to go and see for ourselves what is going on.”

Kristof writes that DeYoung, whom he interviewed as well, “suggested that the operator was probably mismanaging the chicken house.”

But the accounts of other former chicken farmers contracted by Perdue suggest that what Watts helped reveal was not an isolated incident. Carole Morison, who was featured in the documentary Food, Inc., used to raise chickens for Perdue on a Maryland farm that looked much like Watts’: a massive metal barn packed with birds, two-thirds of a square foot per chicken. In an interview with TakePart from 2012, Morison recalled the deplorable state of the poultry she was raising under her Perdue contract.

“Watching these chickens grow to the point that they couldn’t take more than a few steps and then plop down in exhaustion or had bad legs because their bones couldn’t support the weight was normal,” she said. “Many would flip over and die from heart attacks.”

As Kristof writes, the contradictions between conditions on the farm and packaging that claims birds are “cage-free,” “free-range,” or “humanely raised”—which Perdue only recently agreed to stop using—“leaves millions of Americans, me included, in a bind.”

“We eat meat, yet we want to minimize cruelty to animals,” he says. “This is an uncertain, inconsistent and perhaps hypocritical path, and it’s hard enough without giant food companies manipulating us.”

Farmers like Watts and Morison, who help consumers face these realities without the filter of a marketing department, make it easier to become informed. What we face with a video such as Compassion in World Farming’s is not a question of eating meat versus not eating meat, but rather whether you want to make dietary decisions that support this kind of blatant abuse and disregard.