‘Landmark’ whistle blower case: Farmer alleges that chicken producer Perdue illegally punished him for exposing unsafe and inhumane practices
by Katerina Lorenzatos Makris ~
“The world just got lifted off my shoulders by speaking out,” chicken farmer Craig Watts recently told readers on a Reddit forum. “I call it freedom.”
For more than two decades, Watts has worked as a contract farmer for Perdue Farms Inc., one of the United States’s largest chicken producers. But a couple of years ago he watched a TV commercial in which the company touted its high standards for humane treatment of the birds it raises and sells for food. In a commercial currently featured on the Perdue website, company chairman Jim Perdue says, “My dad always taught us one line—that’s ‘do the right thing.’ Doing the right thing is things like treating the chickens humanely.”
Farmer Watts said he knew first-hand that such advertising “couldn’t get any further from the truth.”
So this past December, though he realized he “had a lot to lose,” Watts decided to blow the whistle. He took the unusual step of inviting animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) onto his own North Carolina farm to video the poor food safety and animal welfare practices that he says Perdue contractually obligates him to follow.
“This stuff is not as advertised,” he explains in the CIWF video. “There’s a lot of flaws in the system. The consumer is being hoodwinked. The farmer’s being jerked around.” [WARNING: Video includes graphic images.]
The video includes disturbing scenes of sick, injured, and dying chicks. Perdue breeds chickens to grow unnaturally fast, according to the narration. The birds suffer from genetic deformities and broken limbs, are unable to properly stand or walk, and consequently squat or lie on the floor in feces, developing sores and infections, which Watts says the company does not allow him to treat.
“If you see [these] things and they don’t bother you,” Watts wrote on Reddit, “you don’t have a pulse.”
Like many other farmers, Watts works under contract to raise hundreds of thousands of chickens per year for the company. “We are bound by that contract,” he said on the “Ask Me Anything” forum on Reddit in January. “The contract handcuffs me from making changes that would really matter.”
When he sought help from the company to improve conditions, his requests went nowhere, he said.
Whistle blower ‘retaliation’?
Watts’ “freedom”—his decision to speak publicly about Perdue—came at a price, he alleges in what is being termed a “landmark” complaint filed Thursday with the United States Department of Labor.
Watts and his lawyers state that in December, soon after CIWF posted the video on its website, his employer Perdue broke federal whistle blower protection laws, suddenly singling out him and his C&W Farms for increased scrutiny in the form of surprise inspections, delays, and mandatory training.
The complaint, filed by attorneys representing Watts pro bono on behalf of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project (GAP), who say the suit is the first of its kind, alleges that Perdue has taken these steps as retaliation against Watts. Such reprisals would be prohibited by the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA) Act of 2011, which provides certain measures of protection, in some cases, to those who expose their employers’ wrongdoing.
In the previous 22 years of raising chickens for Perdue, Watts had never gotten more than routine inspections from the company, and in fact had been recognized as “a top Perdue producer”—one of the company’s “most successful and conscientious farmers,” his attorneys said. He “had never received any complaints about his performance,” and his farm’s conditions were deemed to be “within industry norms.”
However within hours of the video’s release,“Perdue turned up at Watts’ farm to conduct a surprise animal welfare audit, the first he had ever received in his 22 years of raising chickens,” said Amanda Hitt, director of GAP’s Food Integrity Campaign (FIC). “Perdue representatives have [since] visited the farm more than 17 times. The company also placed Watts under a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP), making him take a biosecurity and animal welfare course… and publicly blamed Watts for poor management of the farm.”
‘Not retribution,’ says Perdue Farms
In response to questions about Watts’ allegations, a Perdue Farms spokeswoman emailed Animal Issues Reporter (AIR) a statement reading, in part:
“We have been more than professional and accommodating to Mr. Watts. Our actions are consistent with our standard procedures for handling contract grower issues and what we feel is necessary to ensure that our chickens are receiving appropriate care.
“As we told Mr. Watts in writing, ‘Perdue’s increased attention to your poultry farm during the weeks ahead is not for purposes of retribution, but to ensure that Perdue’s poultry are being properly cared for in an environment that ensures both adequate animal husbandry and animal welfare practices.’
“In that same letter, we reminded him that the growing contract allows him to terminate his relationship with us at any time and seek a contract with another poultry company or use his houses for other business purposes. We even offered to waive the 90-day notice he is required to give us under the USDA [United States Department of Agriculture] Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration regulations that govern poultry contracts.”
Regarding the CIWF video, Perdue commented in its statement today, “We can only conclude that the conditions shown in the video were staged and/or that the video was selectively shot and edited to tell a negative story.”
In a prior statement issued on December 5, the company said, “Perdue Farms has thoroughly reviewed the video posted by an animal advocacy group, and we can assure you that the conditions shown in this farmer’s poultry house do not reflect Perdue’s standards for how our chickens are raised. It is clear from the video that he [Watts] is not following our guidelines and failed to provide appropriate animal care. We sent a team of poultry welfare experts to visit his farm and assess the condition of his current flock, to assure their well-being. In addition, we have asked the Center for Food Integrity’s Animal Care Review panel to review the video and give us their unbiased assessment. This independent group of animal welfare experts confirmed that the video does not portray the everyday conditions of a properly managed poultry house.”
‘Opens the mic for others’
Watts’s complaint to the U.S. Department of Labor demands that Perdue “expunge” the December letter placing Watts under a Performance Improvement Plan, stop subjecting him to “retaliatory increased inspections,” and compensate him for lost earnings of about $4,500 and other costs resulting from the reprisals, as well as legal fees.
However, “this is not about money,” FIC director Hitt emphasized in an interview with Animal Issues Reporter (AIR). “There’s no money to be made here. This is about one farmer’s ability to speak freely.”
“Craig Watts spoke out against misleading labels and food safety concerns and paid the price,” Hitt explained in a media release. “His truth-telling is legally protected under a federal law that is meant to protect whistle blowers from the type of retaliation that Mr. Watts is now facing. Instead of retaliating against Craig Watts, Perdue should be listening to him and start implementing practices that are better for animals, farmers, and consumers.”
Hitt added that this is the first time ever that a contract farmer has filed a lawsuit of this kind against a large poultry company. “This landmark filing marks a first step in an effort for contract farmers to have the right to speak out against unfair and inhumane conditions on large-scale farms.”
The case is important to her organization, Hitt told AIR, because “I think that fighting for Mr. Watts’ right to speak about what was happening on his farm opens the mic for others who may have claims—not just about animal welfare but other issues too.”
Perdue countered in its written statement today, “It is obvious from reviewing [Watts's] complaint… that this is more about publicity than legal action… We are confident this complaint will be quickly resolved in Perdue’s favor and exposed for the publicity ploy that it is.”
In its December statement the company wrote, “The independent farmers that we entrust to raise our chickens are contractually and ethically obligated to notify their Perdue flock advisor immediately if any situation exists which would have an adverse effect on the health or well-being of the flock. We are always available to respond with additional resources or expertise should a farmer need help in raising our birds. We also provide an anonymous, toll-free hotline, operated by an independent third party, to provide a secure method to report any issues if a grower feels his or her concerns are not being addressed locally.”
Further, Perdue argued that “Contrary to Compassion in World Farming’s allegations, multiple layers of oversight, including audits by the USDA, independent third-party auditors, and our own internal audits ensure that our chickens are raised appropriately.”
Chickens sick, stressed, injured… and dangerous?
“There’s a lot of issues with food-borne illness with poultry,” Watts wrote on Reddit. “These chickens come loaded with salmonella, E. coli and staph [staphylococcus]. Even if you don’t care about welfare, they’re getting sick because of the ways they’re raised. And that, everyone should care about.”
The farmer “hoped and believed that the [CIWF] video’s publication would prompt the public to join him in opposing [Perdue's] labeling and problematic animal husbandry practices, and that it would “prompt an investigation or other action by government officials,” according to his attorneys.
Watts insists that Perdue’s policies force him and other farmers into positions where they must practice poor sanitation and overcrowd the birds. Some of the chicks he receives from Perdue hatcheries are injured and diseased, he said. The company doesn’t permit him to use antibiotics, so many of the animals die of illness. Watts adds that Perdue does not allow windows in buildings housing the chickens, so “lack of sunlight and fresh air has impaired the birds’ quality of life, causing overheating, increased stress and reduced levels of activity.”
In his Reddit comments, Watts implied that the policies and practices of other U.S. chicken production companies aren’t much different. “With Tyson, Perdue and Pilgrim’s,” he said, “you’re looking at a carbon copy of each other.”
Perdue maintains that the CIWF video and Watts’s allegations do “not accurately reflect nor represent our standards for raising poultry, nor [are they] consistent with what other media representatives have seen… Other Perdue poultry growers have been featured on Maryland Public Television’s Farm and Harvest series, and one of our growers gave the filmmakers who produced the documentary Farmland unlimited access to his farm. Reporters from Reuters, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, National Geographic and others have recently visited our growers’ farms… We appreciate the hard work that our hundreds of contract growers provide every day, and regret that Mr. Watts’s actions reflect negatively on them and on the poultry industry.”
Senators call for USDA action
Two U.S. senators have responded to Watts’s, GAO’s, and CIWF’s allegations against Perdue Farms by calling upon the Department of Agriculture to correct its policies on animal welfare labeling for meat and poultry, according to the farmer’s attorneys.
In January Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) sent a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack expressing their “serious concern that the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is approving false and misleading labels with animal welfare claims for meat and poultry products, such as ‘humanely raised’ or ‘cage free.’”
They pointed out that it is “a violation of the Federal Meat Inspection Act and Poultry Products Inspection Act to label a product in a manner that is misleading or false.”
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Katerina Lorenzatos Makris is a career journalist, author, and editor. Credits include hundreds of articles for regional wire services and for outlets such as National Geographic Traveler, The San Francisco Chronicle, Travelers’ Tales, NBC’s Petside.com, and Examiner.com (Animal Policy Examiner), a teleplay for CBS-TV, a short story for The Bark magazine, and 17 novels for Avon, E.P. Dutton, Simon and Schuster, and other major publishers.
Together with coauthor Shelley Frost, Katerina wrote a step-by-step guide for hands-on, in-the-trenches dog rescue, Your Adopted Dog: Everything You Need to Know About Rescuing and Caring for a Best Friend in Need (The Lyons Press).
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