Humble and unassuming, former contract poultry grower Craig Watts didn’t set out to be the plaintiff in an historic whistleblower lawsuit or to be the star of documentaries, news interviews, and articles. However, in 2014 he was thrust into the spotlight and forced into action when he allowed a nonprofit to film the conditions of his chicken flocks. Watts had enough with industrial farming and spoke his truth. But his path has not been an easy one. Immediately after the video went public, the Food Integrity Campaign stepped in to offer legal support.
In whistleblowing, the truth often comes with a negative consequence. After the video went viral, Perdue staff 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. Not surprisingly, Perdue blamed Watts for poor farm management, not their own animal welfare policies. However, not only were Watts’ farm’s conditions were within industry norms, Perdue had previously recognized Watts as a top producer for the company! Perdue continued to scrutinize Watts, making over a dozen visits to the farm and placing him under a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) that required him to take an arbitrary biosecurity and, ironically, animal welfare course.
Watts’ struggles were not in vain. Watts offered the public a rare glimpse into an industry both known for its secrecy and for its abuses of animals and workers. In the process, he unveiled the struggles that many of his fellow farmers face. According to Watts, Perdue offers what seems like a great contract to the farmers who raise chickens for the company. In reality, the contracts trap farmers in a cycle of debt. Just a few large companies dominate the contract poultry industry that produces most of our nation’s chicken, holding far more power than any one farmer who dares speak up if there are problems.
Watts also noted that there’s a lot of confusion around labeling. He said that claims of “humanely raised” are used to describe farms like his. Watts says that such a label “couldn’t be further from the truth.” He thinks consumers have a lot to learn about “antibiotic-free” labeling as well. Watts has been candid about what decisions (or lack thereof) the majority of U.S. farmers can make when it comes to their chicken’s health. In 2015, FIC interviewed Watts about the meaning of “antibiotic-free” in depth.
The battle isn’t over. In 2015, FIC filed a lawsuit against Perdue on Watts’ behalf and we are still fighting. The complaint alleges that Perdue violated the whistleblower protections under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). This is the first case and filing of its kind in the U.S., where a whistleblowing contract farmer files a lawsuit of this nature against a large poultry producer. This landmark filing marks a first step in an effort for contract farmers to have the right to safely speak out against unfair and inhumane conditions on large-scale farms.