Going Behind the Barn Doors at a Factory Chicken Farm

Animal rights activists and poultry farmers are often at odds. But, increasingly, the two camps are starting to work together. In the video below, which was released today as part of Compassion in World Farming (CWF)’s Better Chicken Campaign, Leah Garces, the U.S. director of the UK-based organization, gets invited to tour the farm of Craig Watts, a contract poultry producer for Perdue.

What Garces finds there probably won’t surprise most of her audience. The chickens in Watts’ system are unhealthy, crowded, and panting to hold up their over-grown bodies. Or, as Nicholas Kristof puts it in his column about the campaign: “Torture a single chicken and you risk arrest. Abuse hundreds of thousands of chickens for their entire lives? That’s agribusiness.”

But here’s the part that might surprise some consumers: According to CWF, the chickens in the video are the same ones Perdue was selling with the label “humanely raised” until a pair of class-action lawsuits required the company to remove the label in October. The chickens are also labeled “natural,” a term some 60 percent of people look for when shopping for food, according to a recent study by Consumer Reports.

Contract poultry growers for Tyson and Perdue don’t, as a rule, speak to the media. So when they do, it’s a sure sign that they’re prepared to get out of the business. And, much like farmer Carole Morison in the much-watched Food, Inc. scene, Watts tells Garces that he’s ready to get out of the business. “This stuff is not as advertised,” he says. “The consumer is being hoodwinked, the farmer is being jerked around.”

CWF’s campaign is targeting six of the biggest food retailers in the nation–Kroger, Target, Wal-Mart, Safeway, Publix, and Trader Joe’s–asking them to source from farms that use trusted third-party humane certification systems, such as Animal Welfare Approved, Certified Humane or Global Animal Partnership. If retailers get on board, it could also mean better livelihood for farmers, who contend with a “tournament system” under large farms that often results in bankruptcy. As Christopher Leonard described it, in a recent interview with Civil Eats:

“You get a pool of farmers, half of whom will always do well, half will always get punished. So, even if they all do a great job, half of them will get money taken out of their pocket by the other half. It’s a way that companies like Tyson can divide and conquer rural communities. It systematically depresses farmers’ paychecks and keeps them very volatile.”

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For her part, Garces seems to understand that including farmers—and advocating for a system that improves their livelihood–will only further CWF’s goals. “I realized we want the same thing,” she says of Watts in the video. “We want to reform the industry, and we’re going to have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder to do that.”

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