By LEAH GARCES
Last month, something unprecedented happened that rocked the chicken industry’s world.
Perdue contract farmer Craig Watts decided he’d had enough. Together with my organization, Compassion in World Farming, he released a video that gave the public a unique view into the secretive world of the chicken industry.
He revealed what the National Chicken Council (NCC), USDA, and Perdue mean by “humanely raised” and “cage-free”: 30,000 chickens stuffed into a windowless warehouse, on feces-ridden litter, made to grow so big so quickly that they can hardly stand on their own two legs.
Consumers were outraged. More than half a million people viewed the video in the first 24 hours alone on YouTube. Media coverage was widespread, led by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s hard-hitting piece. Perdue’s Facebook page was inundated with fuming customers who felt betrayed.
Watts revealed a truth that the chicken industry, like ostriches with their heads in the sand, refuses to acknowledge. Americans don’t want factory-farmed chickens. And they certainly don’t want USDA to put a stamp on it calling it humane and cage-free.
Hours after the 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. Perdue handed CIWF’s video over to the “Center for Food Integrity’s” panel of industry spokespeople to review the footage.
CFI’s CEO Charlie Arnot has made clear the purpose of the “review panel.” He stated, “This program creates an opportunity for animal agriculture to re-frame the public conversation related to undercover video investigations.”
Predictably, CFI’s “re-framing” was to blame Watts for poor management. Industry press regurgitated the panel’s review. Feedstuffs, a farming newspaper, stated that the “video misrepresents the broiler industry” and grasped at straws, trying to blame selective editing of the film and poor management.
They failed to check Watts’ history and records. Not only are the conditions of his farm within industry norms, but Watts has been awarded by Perdue as a top producer.
But the public was not to be fooled again. Consumer Rickie Colonna posted this on Perdue’s Facebook page: “Nice retaliation against a farmer who wants his unhealthy chickens to see the light of day. I will never buy Perdue again.“
In the weeks that followed, Watts had six visits in total from Perdue. More than 22,000 emails were sent by consumers to supermarkets across the country asking for better treatment of chickens. Letters of encouragement poured into CIWF’s office, thanking Watts for his efforts and hoping other farmers might do the same.
With the eyes of the media on Perdue and Watts receiving pro bono legal counsel from the Government Accountability Project, his contract with Perdue has been kept intact — so far.
Watts risked everything to tell this story. He risked his friendships with his neighbors, his livelihood and his future for his family. He had nothing to gain and everything to lose. Instead of condemning Watts, the industry could learn from his courage.
The chicken industry is presented with two options. One is to continue to blame “farm management” as the culprit every time a video comes out revealing the cruel realities of factory farming. This approach clearly backfired in this situation. Trying to silence farmers who question the status quo is not an effective way to win Americans’ trust.
The other is to listen to what consumers, and Watts, are saying. Go beyond the NCCs anemic guidelines, beyond keeping animals in windowless, barren, packed warehouses, on feces-ridden litter, with genetics that result in crippled, inactive birds. If the industry doesn’t take its head out of the sand soon, the chasm between it and its customers will only continue to grow.