By Maryn McKenna
Back in December I wrote about a chicken farmer who took the extraordinary step of inviting animal-welfare activists into his barns to document the conditions under which his contract compels him to raise his birds. The farmer, Craig Watts of North Carolina, has raised chicken for Perdue Farms for two decades and has often been a top producer for them; he was not an outlier, but someone well within the corporate farming system. Yet it weighed on his conscience that even when he did his best to care for them, the birds seemed deformed and unwell. “The consumer’s being hoodwinked,” he said at the time.
The video he made with the group Compassion in World Farming has been viewed more than 1.6 million times. Watts continues to raise chickens for Perdue; the company did not yank his contract. But he claims he has been subjected to a campaign of retaliation from Perdue as a result, with very frequent visits from a variety of inspectors, and so he has taken a second extraordinary step. He has filed a federal complaint claiming whistleblower protection, alleging that he was forced to violate laws that protect consumers against “adulterated or misbranded” food.
Watts was not the first chicken contract farmer to speak out — Carole Morrison, a Maryland contract farmer, appeared in the documentary Food, Inc. and lost her livelihood as a result — but he’s almost certainly the first to strike back.
Watts is being represented by the Food Integrity Campaign, part of the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, which filed on his behalf this morning with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, within the US Department of Labor. The complaint and cover letter are on the nonprofit’s site. The cover letter sums up the issue (“Complainant” is Watts and “Respondent” is Perdue):
Complainant has observed an increase in the number of chicks placed on his farm carrying bacterial infections. As a result, Complainant believes that Respondent has not adequately controlled sanitation in its hatcheries to prevent birds from developing infections while at the hatchery, and is not culling sick birds from flocks at the hatchery with sufficient care to prevent the introduction and spread of diseases among the flocks placed on his farm. Additionally, Complainant believes that because Respondent crowds too many birds into each house, the birds do not have adequate room to move around freely, causing them trample each other to access water and food, which in turn leads to scratches and increased risk of infection. Moreover, Respondent prohibits Complainant from administering antibiotics and other medications to sick birds, and Respondent has refused to administer drugs to the birds when Complainant has sought help dealing with apparent outbreaks of disease among flocks placed on his farm.
Watts and his attorneys claim protection under the recent Food Safety Modernization Act, which added whistleblower “employee protection” provisions to the thicket of laws that govern food safety in the United States.
It’s notable that, in the complaint, Watts doesn’t ask for much: He doesn’t seek punitive damages, for instance, just attorneys’ fees and legal costs. Mostly what he asks is to continue to farm. After he went public, the poultry industry responded that the conditions in the video were the result of his poor farming practices; Watts says the first inspectors’ visits were within hours of the video going live, and continued “almost daily” since then, 23 times in the past two months. According to him, he was put on a “performance improvement plan,” and the complaint asks for that to be reversed, and for an end to any “retaliatory increased inspections.”
This is a lot of legalese, but the key facts are these: Most of the meat we eat in the US is raised in conditions that most consumers cannot see. This farmer felt those conditions were injurious to animals and bad for eaters. He opened the doors on his small corner of the industry in the hopes of changing it, and he wants to keep those doors open. Whistleblower protection might help him do that. I reached Watts quickly by phone, and he said: “I want there to be some avenue for farmers to be protected, so that they don’t have to be walking around on eggshells. Hopefully this is it.”
Because the complaint was just posted, Perdue has not yet commented, but I will ask them for comment and update this post when they do.