Perdue's monumental chicken "hoodwink": Meet the farmer exposing Big Poultry's dirty laundry

The farmer facing retaliation for letting the media into his chicken farm explains why he decided to speak out

Published December 10, 2014 8:30PM (EST)

      (Screenshot, CompassionUSA)
(Screenshot, CompassionUSA)

Craig Watts has been raising chickens for Perdue since 1992 — and he's had enough.

In recent years, the North Carolina farmer has begun calling attention to the abuses he's witnessed while under contract for Perdue, the country's third-largest chicken producer. Last week, he took his biggest step yet, inviting the animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming to his barns and allowing them to film the conditions there.

What finally drove him to speak out, Watts told Salon, was the growing realization that things at Perdue, from the way it treats its farmers to the way it represents its product to consumers, aren't what they seem. There were the years of caring for birds that arrived to him from Perdue hatcheries already sick. There's the way he saw himself and the more than 2,200 other contract farmers being controlled by Perdue; as Christopher Leonard explores in his book "The Meat Racket," major poultry companies keep their farmers in crippling debt, which prevents many from being able to walk away, let alone speak out. There was the failure of the USDA, in 2011, to pass a proposed food-system reform that would have given the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration the power to crack down on the way monopolies like Perdue control their farmers. And there was the introduction of the USDA's process-verified process, which held farmers to what Watts experienced as senseless, arbitrary standards while leading customers to believe they're purchasing a bird that was raised "humanely" and "cage free." (Perdue has agreed to remove that former label under pressure from animal rights groups, but Compassion in World Farming's Leah Garces, who produced the video, maintains that the entire USDA process is a "marketing scam.")

It was only hours after Compassion in World Farming released its video that Watts received an unexpected visit from Perdue. The company maintains that the conditions seen in the video are not representative of their operations, and that Watts must have been doing something wrong. Others interpreted it as retaliation -- Watts faces disciplinary action should the audit turn up any wrongdoing; at worst, he could even lose his contract. But he's past worrying about that, he told Salon. Instead, he feels like a great weight has been lifted.

Our conversation, which has been lightly edited for length and clarity, follows.

So I was hoping just to talk a little bit about the video and Perdue's reaction to it.

The video is what it is; it's exactly what you see when you enter those houses. On the front-end, you have issues with small chicks -- I mean sometimes you don't and sometimes it's horrendous. But you don't know until they get there. Usually it's about two or three days later, maybe four days, and the death rate can really explode. I mean, I've picked up 500, 600 per house a day, it's not unheard of.

As far as on the tail-end of the video, what seems to be what got the attention was the birds with the bad legs, and I was accused of being this animal abuser and practicing poor husbandry. If you look at the video, at the 4:20 mark, I think you'll count five, out of 30,000 birds, sitting on that litter that have been culled. If you look at their paws, they are totally clean, which indicates optimal litter conditions. It was June, and yeah, birds are going to pant. Perdue has housing standards, and I'm as high as they can get.

Was there a moment for you when you personally realized that something wasn't right with the way this was happening? Or a moment when it became serious enough that you decided to come forward and make the video?

Well, it didn't take long to figure out the image that was sold to me wasn't exactly reality. But you are thinking, "Okay, five years, six more years, I'm going to have these things paid off, and I can make some money or walk away without having to go to bankruptcy court." But that never happens. It's cost and it's equipment upgrades, you're just constantly in debt.

There were several moments that were, I guess, life-changing. The upgrades started in 2006 -- I didn't get up to speed until 2007, I kind of did it gradually -- and 2006, net-money, was the best year I ever had in poultry. 2007, when I upgraded, that money was cut in half. And it's been kind of steady ever since. I think most people you'll get the same story from: the issue is that everything they add winds up consuming more power. You can't drop the curtains any more to let fresh air in, and in summertime, you're talking about nine big fans running, sometimes 24/7. So to borrow an overused phrase, every time we upgrade we're leaving a bigger carbon footprint. But if you read some stuff about some of these corporate headquarters, they're talking about, "Oh we've got solar panels," I'm sure they'll be doing green roofs before too long, just as an image thing. But in reality, out here they've got however many contract farms there are that electricity consumption has doubled since I started, I'll just put it that way.

And that's costing you more, on top of everything else?

Oh, yeah. They don't give a crap about expense. And you know, they say that they pay upgrade incentives like it's some fantastic thing, and what I get from Perdue is $9,600 a year. What I pay back to the farm credit is $24,600 a year. You do the math. That's $15,000 in the hole, every year.

You joked in your email that you're home counting your money -- are you being accused of profiting from coming forward about this?

No, that's just a ridiculous statement, I always say that when I'm running barefoot for my mail. We don't have any money. And I didn't get into this business expecting to get rich, either. I busted my tail to get the houses paid off in 10 years just like I was supposed to; had two businesses going at the same time thinking, "OK, when I get these houses paid off I can relax a little bit." It just hasn't been that way. What has happened is that what was once a part-time job basically has become a man-and-a-half job, just from the simple fact that they just keep adding and adding and adding and adding.

In the farm bill, they addressed a lot of this stuff, and in 2008 Congress instructed the USDA to deal with this stuff, because there is a 1921 law that was meant to help the farmer fight against the big feed lots at that time. And so it just kind of needed a facelift -- I don't think it was dealt with much, I guess there weren't really that many issues, but with the concentration of farmers there are now, we're at the mercy of one company. They brought the proposal out in 2010, and then the public comment process I think was 66,000 comments -- which as far as I know is unheard of -- the majority supporting what the USDA had proposed. Meatpackers got in it, lobbied, and basically killed it. So that really opened my eyes to politics. I really didn't care about it before, and to be honest, I wish I didn't know how dirty it was. But unfortunately, I do now.

And you know, I've been to D.C. and did some briefings, met with congressmen ... a waste of time. And then right on the heels of that, we had some processing plants close. A guy went out and did a documentary about plants closing in Louisiana and Texas -- it was Jonathan Shepard's "the Sharecroppers" -- and they're just talking about how that company just got up and left. They were pushing these equipment upgrades, leaving the farmers half a million, a million dollars in debt, and just packed up and went away. And there they are, you know, they're going to lose everything they've got -- some of them already had -- because of some poor decisions made in a board room a thousand miles away from a farm. And that's the trouble. We don't have control of our farms. I mean, the balance of power -- there is none. We have none, they have it all. It's a contract of adhesion, I think's the legal term for it.

But anyway, that thing was really sad, and that was like, OK, we've got to do something. And then I think it was in 2012, I was sitting in Brookings, South Dakota, watching television, and I saw that commercial where Jim Perdue's driving down the road talking about they're going to educate the public, and be transparent, and I'm like, what? And then he walks in that chicken house: market-aged birds, brand-new litter, equipment is spotless. And I'm thinking, Jesus Christ, there is nothing further from the truth than that. I couldn't even believe I was watching that. So that was kind of another moment.

The USDA process verification thing may have started a little bit before that -- I don't know, I never had it on my farm. But then there came another list of measures: it was more scrutiny on the farm, and we already had enough to deal with. I didn't really see anything that changed the logistics of what they do, and certainly in practice I hadn't seen anything changed. And then, I know when the USDA's coming, I know what they're going to be looking at, because they send people out here to prep us. So what good is that? It's a joke.

The USDA sends people out, or Perdue does?

Perdue. They send their reps out three, four days ahead of time: "OK, the USDA's coming Monday," and they're going down their little checklist. And let me tell you what it involves: "Is your grass cut?" "Do you have fresh bait in your rat boxes?" "Are your control rooms neat?" "Do you have these X number of papers stapled to your wall (emergency numbers and things like that)?"

So you don't think the USDA is looking for the right things when they come to inspect?

I don't know, I've never had an inspection -- as far as I know, it is random, so they've got to get everybody ready. I've never witnessed it. So I don't really know exactly what they do, but I know what they come out there and prep me for, and I'm thinking, "Well, that doesn't make me feel any better about eating chicken." My grass is cut, really? Does that make you feel better?

Not really, no. So are there concrete things that either the USDA or Perdue could do to make you feel better about how they operate?

Absolutely. It's easy. If the USDA's going to do it, don't be bringing the National Chicken Council checklist to verify. I mean, that's a joke, you've got the lobbyists writing standards for the industry they represent? I mean, that's like me grading my own test paper: "Look, mom, I got a hundred again!" If the USDA's going to do it, then the USDA needs to establish their own set of criteria. They need to show up unannounced. That's what I think. That's an inspection. Don't come out and get the sunshine tour -- look at the real world out here.

Not that things are that much different on farms. I just think it's insulting for Perdue not to pick up the phone and call me instead of sending one to two people out there to scour the farm. I'm 48 years old, I'm college educated -- summa cum laude -- not meaning I'm the smartest man in the world, but it does tell me I can grasp concepts. And this ain't rocket science we're talking about. This is grass cut, stapling paper to the wall. We just need to control our own farms, because we have become research and development. We can't afford it. We went about 15 years without a pay increase. I grossed as much money in 2000 as I did last year. Grossed: dollar for dollar. Adjusted for inflation. And so we've eaten basically 15 years of it. Nothing they talk about shows up in the paycheck. And it's not so much about the money; it's about right and wrong. If you're going to jump off consumer trends, then you go all in. You don't skirt it and pretend you're something you're not.

And that was like the last tipping point, because I had a conversation with the local management down here -- I had some really bad issues with some birds, and on the front-end they died, died, died. And all it is is a hatchery issue: they come to me laden with bacteria; the hatchery's not a pristine environment. That is one unintended consequence of removing the antibiotics in the hatchery: it shows the flaws in the sanitation. So we're dealing with that now, and actually they were pretty good, so maybe they're working it out, but those were horrendous. The tail-end of the flock, they had some more issues, so I reported it to them. I took pictures and sent it to them -- opened the birds up and showed them the intestines, and they were nasty and bloated and blood-laden and everything else. So I asked why nobody came out, and they said they didn't come out until the birds started dying. And I'm thinking, "Where the hell's the welfare in that?" That's like me waiting until I die to go to the doctor. So that was a little bizarre for me, and really kind of focused me in on how things are not how they seem. That's what it is: it's a total hoodwink.

Were you expecting Perdue to respond the way that it did?

Yeah, I would be a fool... I mean, in their defense, they had to do something. The surprise welfare inspection they did, they were there at 1 o'clock that day. I don't know if they thought I would be at lunch or something, but I was there. Surprise! And the thing is, it was two guys who I've known for a long time. Both decent men, I've got no qualms with either one of them. They were just doing what they were told to do. They knew better. They must have been to my farm many, many times.

I've heard no results of the audit, so it's one of two things. Either I passed and they'd rather not say that. Or I failed and they've left these birds in these horrendous conditions for five whole days. I mean, that's like, do you want to drown or burn? Either way, you're wrong, you know?

But that's always been kind of the way it is. We are an expendable resource, that's the way we're viewed. And this is not about Perdue, either. This is the industry, period. I know farmers from every major poultry company there is, they will tell you the same story I'm telling you, except for the USDA process-verified part.

Well thank you again for agreeing to speak with me -- I know it's putting you in an uncomfortable position.

Oh, I'm not uncomfortable. I'm fine. It's like I was telling the ladies at Farm Aid yesterday, they asked, "Well, what did you do today?" And I said, "Well, I went down to the chicken houses just like I always do. But this morning, I went down there without an anvil on my chest."

Losing a contract? I'm not worried about that. If the past is any indication of the future, shit, I don't want to do it. The thing is, though, I don't have much debt. There are a lot of farmers who aren't in this position, and that's why they're kind of quiet. If I've got to fall on the sword to make it better for the rest, so be it. Because we're getting ready to change gears, and people are going to understand what we're going through out here.

The video that Lynn did was great. She's been a pleasure to work with. I don't think we had even the most minor disagreement. We both came into this situation non-judgment: on her side, I'm an animal abuser, and on my side, she's an eco-terrorist. But if you seed it out, and you through away what cable news tells us our opinions should be, we're all the same. We all want the same things. Who doesn't want clean water and to make a living and to not be walked all over?

The audit, what they do is basically exactly what the USDA does. I've got it on my security camera -- I don't have audio, but I can go back and tell how long they stayed. If they stayed an hour, I doubt it. So what can you obsess about anything in that time? I've got four houses that are 20,000 feet apiece. I can't obsess over what I can't control, and so why should I? They don't give a crap about me, I'll give them the same respect that they give me and that is zero. How's that? Can you quote me on that too?

By Lindsay Abrams

MORE FROM Lindsay Abrams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Animal Abuse Factory Farms Meat Industry Perdue Poultry Usda