The Farmer Who Filmed Suffering Perdue Chickens Is on the Verge of Being Shut Down

These chickens get two thirds of a square foot to live their lives.
These chickens get two thirds of a square foot to live their lives. Photo: CompassionUSA/YouTube

A North Carolina farmer who has been producing hundreds of thousands of chickens under contract with Perdue every year since 1992 cooperated with an animal welfare group on a video that depicts deplorable and shocking conditions on his own property, and now the poultry giant says it will audit the farm.

Craig Watts went on the record with the Times Nicholas Kristof, explaining his conscience went into overdrive after viewing a short, promotional video in which executive Jim Perdue explains corporate philosophy while taking a folksy drive through feedlot country. “Trust,” the executive explains, is “something we’ve always stood for,” including label claims that the birds are “raised cage free,” and “humanely” at that.

“It couldn’t get any further from the truth,” Watts said. His contention is that the guidelines he is obligated to follow and specifications set by the company — which has annual sales of $6 billion — result in animal suffering. The result of his dissent is this video, produced by a group called Compassion in World Farming, in which Watts also suggests that the live birds delivered by Perdue are unhealthy. In addition to several lame and dead chicks, the adult chickens, who do not get sunlight and are cramped to living quarters of two thirds of a square foot each, are deformed, bloated, have abscesses, or open sores.

The video, which has amassed more than 5,000 comments on Reddit, is an abrupt reversal of the ways in which conditions of animal abuse and suffering are filmed and distributed to the public. Typically, activists pose as workers and furtively film deplorable conditions, then upload their videos. Watts’s home state of North Carolina has a so-called Ag-Gag law in place, which offers protection to farm owners from whistleblower-activists. It is unclear if his on-the-record statements, however, fall into what is described in SB 648, or the state’s “Commerce Protection Act,” because he owns his farm.

Perdue said it is auditing Watts’s facilities, and has offered some initial explanations for the video’s contents. “What we saw on the video was very concerning, suggesting to us that the birds were not well taken care of,” a spokesperson said. “So it’s very appropriate for us to go and see for ourselves what is going on.” The company said in September it has phased out the process of injecting its eggs with antibiotics, and in October it announced it would remove stickers identifying some of its meat as “humanely raised” as the result of two lawsuits.

In addition to losing his contract, a likely outcome is that Watts will be put out of business. He maintains he was just following Perdue specifications, and that the horrific conditions depicted in the video are just the reality of factory farming, which he says is exploitative of producers despite the effort to reform the industry. “I think it’s almost going to have to be like a start-over. I think we’re past rewind,” he says in the video.

[Reddit, NYT, Christopher Leonard]

The Farmer Who Filmed Suffering Perdue Chickens Is on the Verge of Being Shut