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The not-so-humane way ‘humanely raised’ chickens are being raised

The barns behind the chicken breasts. (Bob Andres/AP Photo)

Craig Watts is a North Carolina chicken farmer who raises more than 700,000 broiler chickens each year for Perdue farms, one of the largest poultry manufacturers in the country.

Watts says he has been raising chickens for Perdue for more than 20 years, tending to the chicks delivered to him by the company and following Perdue's guidelines for how to raise the birds. Perdue labels all of its chickens as "humanely raised."

For a long time, Watts went along with things as they were. But then he allowed the group, Compassion for World Farming, to spend months at his farm with cameras documenting the conditions.

"This stuff is not advertised," Watts told animal welfare group Compassion for World Farming. "The consumer is being hoodwinked."

The result is this video, which isn't kind to Perdue:

The chickens depicted look sickly. Their breasts are so enlarged that they end up spending disproportionate amounts of time squatting to relieve their legs. They also suffer from lameness and limping, as well as heart and lung problems. Nicholas Kristof, who grew up on a farm, admitted to never having seen anything similar, in an Op-Ed this week:

Most shocking is that the bellies of nearly all the chickens have lost their feathers and are raw, angry, red flesh. The entire underside of almost every chicken is a huge, continuous bedsore. As a farmboy who raised small flocks of chickens and geese, I never saw anything like that.

The physical toll the chickens endure as a result of their genetic make-up only appears to be exacerbated by the physical reality of circumstances in which they're being raised. The birds are confined to a space smaller than a square foot, and frequently spend their entire lives atop mounds of feces. The result is that many birds—more than 1,000 per 30,000 bird flock—die within the first six weeks.

The video flies in the face of Perdue's marketing, and it undermines the credibility of labeling that has been vetted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Look no further than Perdue's own promotional video from 2011 for evidence. Jim Perdue, the chairman of Perdue Farms, dangles phrases like "humanely raised" and "do the right thing":

Perdue Farms, for its part, holds that it's Watts, not the company, that is being negligent.

"It is clear from the video that he is not following our guidelines and has been negligent in the care of his flock," the company said today in a statement. "We send a team of poultry welfare experts to visit his farm and assess the condition of his current flock, and will take whatever steps are needed to assure their well-being."

Leah Garces, the director of Compassion in World Farming, takes issue with this. "Craig [Watts] and I did an analysis of how he is following those guidelines, and he is following them to the letter," she said. "He has been following their standards for 22 years. He has even been a top rated producer in Perdue's own tournament system—in all of the flocks we filmed he was a top producer.

Perdue sells its chicken with a label that says both "humanely raised" and "raised cage free." The former claim seems debatable, especially considering how nearly one million of its birds are being raised each year—whether within the company's guidelines or not. And the latter is arguably misleading, because it applies to virtually all chicken meat sold in the United States. Egg-laying birds are often raised in cages, but broiler chickens—those raised for slaughter—are not. In that sense, marketing that chicken meat comes from chickens that were "raised cage free" isn't all that different from touting the fact that coffee beans were not grown in Siberia (coffee beans, for the record, are not grown in Siberia).

The problem is that these claims, however misleading they might be, are actually pretty effective sales pitches. A recent survey showed that the vast majority of consumers prefer cage-free "humanely raised" labels, according to Kristof.

Compassion in World Farming isn't shy about placing some of the onus on the USDA. The government does have a list of labels that must meet certain requirements in order to be used by meat producers on their packaging, such as "organic," "free range," and "no antibiotics." But the terms that Perdue is using, like "humanely raised" and "raised cage free" aren't regulated by the government in the same way. Instead, they are based on The National Chicken Council's animal welfare guidelines, an industry-created standard.

The USDA doesn't approve the label so much as verify that it meets the standards the industry decided it should meet. Samuel Jones, a spokesperson for the USDA, confirmed the process. "Some companies pay the USDA to verify that they're meeting specific processing points," he said. "If it's cage-free, and they want us to verify that they are meeting their set guidelines, that's what we do."

A lot of this nuance can be lost on consumers, who aren't aware that labels are often defined by the industry, not by the government.

Perdue Farms, for its part, holds that audits by the department and independent third parties, as well as internal audits help "ensure that our chickens are raised appropriately."

The USDA didn't immediately respond to a request for comment on the frequency with which chicken producers request the verification of "cage-free" or "humanely raised" claims. Nor did it immediately respond to a request for comment about the video released by Compassion in World Farming.

This isn't the first time Watts has helped source a rare glimpse into an otherwise extremely secretive meat industry (a topic which journalist Christopher Leonard explores in depth in his new book The Meat Racket). Watts was a leading source in a recent Reuters feature about the pervasive use of antibiotics in the chicken industry. This time, however, it's the chicken's well-being that is front and center.

"I can't speak for a chicken—all I can say is what I observe," Watts tells Garces. "And no, they're not happy. And they're definitely not healthy."