A lawsuit filed against Perdue Farms by a contract poultry grower who partnered with animal rights group Compassion in World Farming (CIWF) to produce a video of his farm appears to be little more than a “publicity ploy,” the poultry company said in a statement.

“While we have not been served with the complaint, we have seen activist groups’ press releases and blog posts, and have been contacted by media who have been pitched to write about it. It is obvious from reviewing the complaint posted online that this is more about publicity than legal action,” the company stated on February 20.

“We are confident this complaint will be quickly resolved in Perdue’s favor and exposed for the publicity ploy that it is. We appreciate the hard work that our hundreds of contract growers provide every day, and regret that Mr. Watts’ actions reflect negatively on them and on the poultry industry.”

Craig Watts’ allegations against Perdue

Craig Watts filed a complaint suing Perdue Farms, alleging that the company’s decision to audit Watts’ farm and place him under a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) were taken in reprisal for protected activity under the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA). The complaint argues that Perdue’s labeling of the chickens as “humanely raised” was misleading, and that Perdue’s breeding and practices increased the risk that birds would become contaminated with Salmonella and/or develop infections, in turn threatening consumers’ health.

In December 2014, Watts, along with CIWF, released a video that gave the public a view of what Watts viewed as the “inhumane” conditions of Perdue’s contract farms. In the video, Watts said he felt powerless to change the conditions for his chickens because he was bound by his contract with Perdue. Hours after the video’s release, the suit alleges, Perdue Farms conducted a surprise animal-welfare audit, the first he had ever received in his 22 years of raising chickens. Watts was then put on a PIP by Perdue and made to take a biosecurity and animal welfare course, the suit further stated.

In December, Watts retained pro bono legal counsel from the Food Integrity Campaign, a program of the Governmental Accountability Project. The Food Integrity Campaign filed the lawsuit in which Watts is suing Perdue.

“Although my contract with Perdue has been kept intact, Perdue [has] been relentless in making my life uncomfortable since I spoke out. I risked everything to tell the truth. I risked friendships with neighbors, my livelihood and the future for my family. Speaking up for what I think is right, has come at a personal price. I’ve been hounded by Perdue since the day I went public with the realities of what happens inside their factory farms,” Watts stated in a press release issued by CIWF.

Perdue says no retaliatory action has been taken, Watts not bound by contract

In its statement, Perdue maintained that its audits of Watts’ farm have been consistent with standard company procedures. It further stated that Watts has the option to terminate his relationship with Perdue at any time to pursue a contract with another poultry company.

“We have been more than professional and accommodating to Mr. Watts. Our actions are consistent with our standard procedures for handling contract grower issues and what we feel is necessary to ensure that our chickens are receiving appropriate care. As we told Mr. Watts in writing, ‘Perdue’s increased attention to your poultry farm during the weeks ahead is not for purposes of retribution, but to ensure that Perdue’s poultry are being properly cared for in an environment that ensures both adequate animal husbandry and animal welfare practices.’

“In that same letter, we reminded him that the growing contract allows him to terminate his relationship with us at any time and seek a contract with another poultry company or use his houses for other business purposes. We even offered to waive the 90-day notice he is required to give us under the USDA Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration regulations that govern poultry contracts.” 

Video of the Watts farm

Watts’ video, shortly after its December release, was reviewed by The Center for Food Integrity's (CFI) Animal Care Review Panel, which acknowledged the video revealed problems at the Watts farm, but added that it was difficult to tell how widespread those problems were because of the way the video was edited.

Perdue also weighed in on the video, questioning the way the video was edited and stating that the level of animal welfare displayed on that video are not acceptable or consistent with the company’s standards.

“As we stated previously, this video does not accurately reflect nor represent our standards for raising poultry, nor is it consistent with what other media representatives have seen. Other Perdue poultry growers have been featured on Maryland Public Television’s Farm & Harvest series and one of our growers gave the filmmakers who produced the documentary Farmland unlimited access to his farm. Reporters from Reuters, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, National Geographic and others have recently visited our growers’ farms. We can only conclude that the conditions shown in the video were staged and/or that the video was selectively shot and edited to tell a negative story,” the company stated.

Perdue Farms has also invited online audiences to visit its newly released website that offers a look into the houses where Perdue chickens are raised.