A Challenge to Perdue’s “Humanely Raised” Label

There is no doubt there is a growing awareness of the suffering endured by farm animals raised for food. There is little federal regulation or oversight, and many states actually exempt farm animals from animal cruelty laws. Industry standards sanction terrible animal cruelty. Many consumers will pay a premium for meat, for example, if they know the animal was raised and treated humanely.

According to a complaint filed in New Jersey state court on November 29, 2010, Perdue Farms, Inc., one of the largest chicken producers in the U.S., has schemed to profit from this market for "humanely raised" meat. Perdue, say the plaintiffs, is profiting from consumer awareness of how badly chickens are treated in the industry.

The complaint filed by consumers alleges that Perdue and others that assisted, marketed, supplied and sold chickens as "humanely raised" under the Perdue and Harvestland labels when, in fact, the animals were anything but. The plaintiff consumers have filed a proposed class action lawsuit for false, misleading and deceptive advertising in violation of the New Jersey Consumer Fraud Act, Sec. 56:8-1 et seq., and for other common law claims.

Perdue says the chickens  were "humanely raised" according to National Chicken Council’s Animal Welfare Guidelines and Audit Checklist for Broilers ("NCC Guidelines").  The NCC assigns points to each item on its checklist. The chicken producers do their own assessments. But there is no minimum score or any way to tell if the company has passed or failed; each company decides if it has passed!

There are things a company can do or fail to do that are called major non-conformances but there is no penalty, only a request to take corrective action.  According to the complaint, major non-conformances include: "live chicks in the waste stream at hatcheries; survival of chicks after euthanasia (i.e., live chicks suffocating in the trash); abuse of birds during catching and transportation; pre-slaughter holding times greater than 15 hours; live birds in the "Dead On Arrival" bins at the slaughter plant; and birds with uncut carotid arteries proceeding to the scald vat during slaughter." 

Perdue is alleged to have sold chickens under the humanely raised label  that suffered the following:  (1) live chicks have been found in the hatchery waste stream, (2) chickens have been held for prolonged periods, "crammed into stiflingly hot (or painfully cold) trucks for hours as they await slaughter, with no food or water"; (3) there has been improper stunning of birds as they proceed to the neck-cutting machines, ineffective neck-cutting devices, and (4) excessive ammonia levels have been found in the growout sheds.

Perdue chickens that are marketed as "humanely raised" are according to the complaint: "shackled, upside-down, while fully conscious as they are conveyed through the slaughter line at processing facilities". Approximately 90% of birds flap their wings vigorously when forced into this position, which can lead to broken bones and dislocated joints. Peer reviewed studies have established this is painful, traumatic, not what any normal person would call "humane".

The chickens are also alleged to suffer electrical shocks as they are put through a "stunner" where they are supposed to be rendered unconscious. According to the complaint, the "chickens that Perdue raises are subject to electric shocking of birds in "stun baths," or vats of electrified water" while they are conscious. Plaintiffs say that "studies published in journals such as Poultry Science have shown that the birds may experience electrically induced paralysis, seizures, and cardiac arrest while still conscious".

When stunning, if used at all, is ineffective, their necks are "cut while fully conscious, and [the birds] even endure a semi-conscious, slow bleed to death". The plaintiffs say, "No reasonable consumer would expect that chickens who were ‘humanely raised’ would have been drowned and scalded alive while fully conscious. But in fact the chickens that Perdue raises are subject to fully-conscious drowning in scalding water after the shackled birds have moved past the neck-cutting machines during processing. Ineffective stunning and neck-cutting can allow the birds to regain consciousness while "bleeding out" and enter the "scald vat" while still alive.

According to industry magazine WATT Poultry USA, the rate of this occurring may be as high as 3%. Thus, the NCC Guidelines if followed by all broiler chicken slaughter facilities would nevertheless allow for 3% – or 270,000,000 – of the approximately nine billion broiler chickens slaughtered each year in this country to be scalded alive."

According to the complaint, Perdue’s chickens suffer from the minute they are hatched. They are separated from the egg by "huge machines" that can result in severe injury; the chick may be "thrown onto the floor".

The complaint also points out that "[n]o reasonable consumer would expect that chickens who were ‘humanely raised’ would have been purposely deprived of sleep in order to encourage abnormal growth. But in fact the chickens that Perdue raises are subject to continuous or near-continuous lighting in ‘growout’ sheds, resulting in sleep deprivation." "Studies published in British Poultry Science, Avian Diseases, and World’s Poultry Science Journal have found that an absence of sufficient periods of darkness per night precludes natural sleep and resting behavior of birds, and exacerbates leg disorders, sudden death syndrome, and mortality levels.

Moreover, the NCC guidelines do not require a minimum lighting intensity. Dim, nearly continuous lighting may lead to abnormal eye development, causing uncomfortable and potentially painful eye disorders such as glaucoma and buphthalmia".

The birds are also typically unable to walk more than 5 feet and have gait defects, again, not something associated with humane treatment. In effect, these chickens said to be "humanely raised" have, according to the plaintiffs, "suffered continuously from cardiovascular problems, painful bone deformities, ruptured tendons, and lameness throughout their short lives."

The plaintiffs cite to "Emeritus professor John Webster of the University of Bristol School of Veterinary Science has stated that ‘[b]roilers are the only livestock that are in chronic pain for the last 20 percent of their lives. They don’t move around, not because they are overstocked, but because it hurts their joints so much.’ It is inconceivable that reasonable consumers would deem it ‘humane’ to breed and raise animals so that a full fifth of their lives is spent in chronic pain so severe that it effectively immobilizes them. Perdue takes no steps to mitigate or remedy these health problems for its supposedly ‘humanely-raised’ chickens."

Sadly, Perdue is alleged to treat its chickens the same as all other chicken producers.   

USDA Process Verified labelAdding to consumer’s confusion is the "USDA Process verified" label. Perdue openly claims the label means its chickens are raised humanely. In fact, the label is simply a marketing tool conceived by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service’s ("AMS") Process Verified Program. AMS is not a regulatory agency, but a marketing agency, created to "increase the sales of farmed products". Basically the company decides its processes for raising and slaughtering chickens, these abysmal industry practices, and then AMS confirms they are following these industry practices. There is nothing humane about it.

Perdue has facilities in 15 states and contracts with 2,250 producers to produce over ½ a billion chickens each year.  The company brings in $4.6 billion in sales annually.

New Jersey actually has laws requiring "humane" treatment of farm animals including chickens. N.J.A.C. 2:8-1.1 et seq. Using New Jersey’s laws as a standard along with other experts, a judge or jury should find Perdue and the NCC’s "standards" at the least fall far short of "humane". 

The plaintiffs primarily seek a declaration from the court that Perdue’s advertising, packaging and labeling of its chicken products as "humanely raised" is a false, deceptive and misleading practice in violation of the law, and also constitutes fraud and misrepresentation. They seek an injunction stopping Perdue  from advertising, packaging or labeling its chicken products as "humanely raised".