This “Whistleblower Spotlight” features Perdue chicken farmer Craig Watts, one of our candidates for 2015 Whistleblower of the Year. He is one of the 30,000 contract farmers in the U.S. who work with the handful of Big-Ag poultry producers, like Perdue Farms, that control what goes into the vast majority of chickens we eat. They also dictate how these chickens are treated. And after more than twenty years in the business, working on the farm that his family has owned since the 1700s, Watts decided he no longer could be silent in the face of what he saw as Perdue’s gross mistreatment of his feathery charges.
So in December 2014, he invited animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming to come to his farm and document first-hand the sordid conditions in which the 700,000 Perdue chickens he raises each year exist. According to Nicholas Kristof in a New York Times OpEd piece he wrote last year, Watts had an “attack of conscience” after seeing a promotional video by Perdue Chairman Jim Perdue in which he trumpets how humanely Perdue treats its chickens. “My jaw just dropped,” Watts said. “It couldn’t get any further from the truth.” After spending months with Watts investigating how Perdue really treats its chickens, Compassion in World Farming released its own video, exposing the real truth of the horrid life of a Perdue chicken.
The truth is not pretty. As Kristof described, the most shocking revelation of the video was “that the bellies of nearly all the chickens have lost their feathers and are raw, angry, red flesh . . . a huge, continuous bedsore.” This apparently stems from the tightly cramped quarters in which the chickens are housed with little room to move, let alone run around or roost as chickens are supposed to do. A very far cry from the “humanely raised” and “cage-free” narrative the company has bandied about to describe its birds. After the video went viral, with more than two million views, Perdue was forced to account for its alleged animal abuse and hypocrisy.
But Perdue did not take responsibility for and action against the wretched farm conditions Watts helped exposed. It went after Watts instead. Almost immediately after the video was released, Perdue went on the offensive claiming that any problems associated with how its chickens were treated at Watts’ farm was the result of Watts alone. It had nothing to do with any systemic problems associated with how Perdue directed its chickens be raised. Then came an onslaught of unannounced Perdue visits and “audits” and mandatory “retraining” in what Watts describes as an effort to intimidate and discredit him.
Ultimately, Watts — with the assistance of the Government Accountability Project Food Integrity Campaign (FIC) — filed a whistleblower retaliation lawsuit against the company, claiming violations of the Food Safety Modernization Act. In announcing this unprecedented Big Poultry showdown, FIC Director Amanda Hitt pointedly highlighted the importance of Watts’ historic stand:
Craig Watts spoke out against misleading labels and food safety concerns and paid the price. His truth-telling is legally protected under a federal law that is meant to protect whistleblowers 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.
While the ultimate whistleblower fate of Watts is still being played out, there is little question his brave crusade has taken hold. Not only has it stirred a strong public outcry for change, but other chicken farmers have joined the charge. Fellow Perdue contractor Rudy Howell has stepped up with a much heralded petition to protect whistleblowers like Watts trying to shine a light on an industry rife with wrongdoing. According to an FIC report on the petition, Howell corroborates Watts “who unveiled the extent that Perdue will go to silence truth-tellers.”
Even Perdue finally may be changing its tune. In a New York Time piece a few months ago reporting on Perdue’s decision to cut antibiotics use in its chickens, Jim Perdue admits “w]e need happier birds.” Some see the statement as an admission by Perdue that it needs to treat its chickens more humanely and a glimmer of hope that Perdue will finally take action. As reported in Food Safety News, “Perdue has perhaps begun an important and much-needed journey” in addressing the animal welfare issues that plague the industry. A journey powerfully paved by the courageous efforts of Whistleblower of the Year candidate Craig Watts.
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