Yet, after a video released this week showed apparent mistreatment of chickens at Perdue, an agribusiness giant, this pattern may be changing. First, the company praised the undercover investigation and subsequent police involvement. And second, because a controversial law will soon limit what people can say about what they see at factory farms, this may be the last such video from North Carolina the world sees for a long while.
The drama began this week when Mercy for Animals (MFA), an organization that aims to “end factory farming,” as its website explained, released graphic video it said showed chickens being mistreated at Deese Farm and Hideaway Farms in Rockingham, N.C. The charges and video came amid attempts — fueled by undercover investigations, concerns about global warming, and charges that the use of antibiotics in slaughterhouses contributes to antibiotic resistance — to start a nationwide debate over whether animal agriculture is worth the costs.
MFA claimed to have witnessed:
- Birds kicked like footballs, thrown against walls, and violently stomped to death by callous workers
- Chickens bred to grow so fast they became crippled under their own weight and died from heart attacks
- Hundreds of thousands of birds crammed into filthy, windowless sheds forced to live for months in their own waste
- Workers spinning birds around by their heads to break their necks
“Extreme cruelty to animals is business as usual at Perdue,” MFA’s president, Nathan Runkle, said in a press release. “Chickens are crammed into filthy, windowless sheds, kicked and thrown by careless workers, and bred to grow so fast they suffer from painful leg deformities and heart attacks. Perdue has not only the power, but also the ethical responsibility to end the worst forms of cruelty to animals in its supply chain. It’s time Perdue took real steps to prevent the suffering of millions of animals.”
News soon came that poultry worker Danny Cajija Miranda, 22, was charged with four counts of animal cruelty. But unlike, say, Whole Foods — which, just last month, stood by a supplier accused of mistreating Thanksgiving turkeys — Perdue did not condemn MFA’s potentially embarrassing efforts. Instead, the chicken company appeared ready to work with a group set on putting it out of business.
“We have seen the video taken by Mercy for Animals on a farm raising chickens for Perdue,” the company said in a statement. “We are appalled by the mistreatment and abuse by a contract catching crew and a farm worker shown in the video. We are committed to working with law enforcement to identify everyone involved and hope the Mercy for Animals will cooperate to facilitate those efforts. We are committed to taking aggressive actions to hold those involved accountable and prevent similar behavior in the future.”
In a later statement, Perdue even expressed its gratitude to MFA.
“We thank Mercy for Animals for uncovering clear animal abuse by an individual on a farm raising our chickens, and we appreciate law enforcement’s prompt action against the perpetrator,” the statement read. “This also demonstrates that we need to improve our oversight, training and practices around day-to-day care of our animals.”
MFA, however, wasn’t backing down. This was about more than one guy who squished a few chickens.
“MFA is urging Perdue to adopt meaningful animal welfare policies to end many of the worst forms of animal abuse and neglect in its supply chain,” the group said in a statement. “This includes ending selective breeding for rapid growth and shifting to slower-growing breeds of birds to prevent health problems related to accelerated growth; providing birds with more space, clean litter, access to natural light, and environmental enrichments; and replacing live-shackle slaughter methods with less cruel systems that eliminate the horrific suffering caused by shackling, shocking, and slitting the throats of conscious animals.”
Perdue, for its part, said it “Chief Animal Welfare Officer and Farm Family Advocate,” and was keeping on eye on its birds.
But the fate of Perdue’s chickens in North Carolina may be shrouded after Jan 1. That’s when new legislation — known as an “ag gag” law by its critics — goes into effect in the state, “giving businesses the right to sue employees who expose trade secrets or take pictures of their workplaces,” as WRAL explained. The law might discourage animal activists who get jobs at poultry processors with a mind to expose abuse; according to Gov. Pat McCrory (R), who vetoed the bill, it also might put every whistleblower at risk.
“While I support the purpose of this bill, I believe it does not adequately protect or give clear guidance to honest employees who uncover criminal activity,” McCrory wrote in his veto message.
Legislators, however, overrode the veto.
“We need to vote for this because it has gotten out of control what some so-called employees have done to businesses,” said state Rep. Pat McElraft (R).
Like similar legislation around the country, North Carolina’s ag-gag law was swiftly condemned by activists.
“Not only will this ag-gag law perpetuate animal abuse, it endangers workers’ rights, consumer health and safety, and the freedom of journalists, employees, and the public at large to share information about something as fundamental as our food supply,” Runkle, MFA’s president, said when the override went through. “This law is bad for consumers, who want more, not less, transparency in food production.”
Though the law may yet change — an Idaho ag-gag law was recently deemed unconstitutional when a federal court ruled it threatened free speech — the debate over meat, and whether it can be raised humanely, continues.
“There’s not just factual but moral fraud here,” Wayne Hsiung of Direct Action Everywhere, who has challenged Whole Foods on how it markets meat, wrote in an e-mail. “We would never say that killing our dogs is ok, so long as they are raised in humane fashion. What’s different about a turkey?”