For 25 years, Rudy Howell of Robeson County made a living by raising chicks as a contract grower for Perdue Farms, one of the nation’s largest poultry producers. He had previously won “Top Producer of the Year” several times. But last summer, Howell invited environmental and animal welfare advocates to his farm to document Perdue’s allegedly poor sanitation practices, as well as his public health concerns regarding the sick and dying hatchlings he received from the company.
Perdue suddenly severed his contract. Howell closed his farm.
Now according to a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Labor, Howell says Perdue retaliated against him for openly contradicting the company’s marketing promises of a kinder, gentler and healthier chicken.
Perdue’s attorney did not respond to an email from Policy Watch seeking comment. But according to the legal complaint, Perdue officials cited Howell for giving four dying chicks to a videographer who wanted to rescue them; by doing so, Perdue alleged that Howell in effect took company property without permission.
The company also alleged that Howell allowed outsiders on his farm, in violation of biosecurity protocols. However, the outsiders — two riverkeepers, Larry Baldwin and Jeff Currie, as well as two animal rights advocates — dressed in personal protective gear that Howell had requested from Perdue — and that the company reportedly gave him.
In the complaint, Howell alleges that Perdue often supplied moldy feed for the chicks, delivered chicks in filthy trays and failed to sanitize trailers and catch machines, which could have cross-contaminated his farm.
In addition, Howell said the company overstuffed transport cages and “willfully dropped chickens on their head during weighing.” The same day the birds were dropped on their head, a Perdue representative reportedly told Howell to “Remember, chickens have feelings,” said Amanda Hitt, attorney with the Government Accountability Project. The firm specializes in whistleblower litigation and is representing Howell.
Howell reportedly told Perdue officials, as well as the USDA, about the problems, but nothing came of his complaints.
What’s unusual about this case is that it’s based on food safety and public health law, as well as traditional legal protections against retaliation. “These chickens are destined to be dinner,” Hitt said. “There are public health concerns.”
(Runoff from dried chicken manure into waterways also presents environmental and public health problems. In the northeastern part of the state, discharge from poultry farms is partially responsible for the proliferation of toxic algae blooms in the Chowan River Basin. Most poultry farms are unregulated and unaccounted for in North Carolina.)
Five years ago Perdue established an animal welfare policy to meet the consumer demand for livestock raised to higher standards. To achieve these goals, the company said it would transition to breeds of birds that grow more slowly. Selective breeding for rapid growth causes the chickens to develop leg deformities, suffer heart attacks or become immobile, top-heavy to the point they tip over and can’t right themselves.
“Perdue promised its customers it would meet the animal welfare consumers desired and demanded,” the complaint reads.
But the chicks Howell received were often so sickly that he had to kill 148 in just one barn — by wringing their necks and decapitating them. When environmental and animal advocates visited Howell’s farm a second time last summer, one chick was “lying on the floor unresponsive and breathing heavily,” the complaint reads. Another tiny chick, smaller than the rest, stumbled around with closed eyes and a beak encrusted with feces.” One of animal advocates rescued the lone surviving chick, named him Sweet Pea. He now lives at a farm animal refuge.
Contract growers, whether poultry or swine, have little to no independence in how they operate their farms, nor the profit they make. Companies such as Perdue oversee and mandate every aspect of the operation: the kind and amount of feed, the timing and type of vaccinations, the number and breed of chickens, even where and when to walk the barns.
The business is cutthroat, and not just for the birds. Perdue paid Howell based on ranking ratings according to a “tournament system.” Farmers are ranked against one another and top-ranked farmers can be paid up to 50% more than bottom-ranked farmers.
Since Perdue exerted such “extreme control” over the daily farm operations, Howell contends he can file the whistleblower complaint as an employee, not an independent contractor. “Rudy would say he’s been misclassified,” Hitt said.
There is merit to Howell’s argument. A 2018 Inspector General’s report for the Small Business Administration concluded that some poultry farmers were receiving federally backed loans even though their operations were essentially owned by behemoth companies.
“The large chicken companies in our sample exercised such comprehensive control over the growers,” that the loans were “apparently ineligible under size requirements.”
Since the companies required certain upgrades to barns and equipment, some farmers had to apply for SBA loans to cover the costs — even though company ultimately benefited.
In its sample of farms, the Inspector General found that company control “overcame practically all of a grower’s ability to operate their business independent of integrator [company] mandates.” Failure to comply with company mandates could result in a reduction of birds delivered, withholding flocks or contract cancellation.
An estimated $1.8 billion in in ineligible SBA loans might have been awarded to poultry farmers from 2012 to 2016, according to the report.