Alice Brennan

Late last year, Craig Watts blew the whistle on his bosses in the poultry business. Now he’s suing them.

The 48 year-old North Carolina chicken farmer filed a lawsuit on Thursday accusing Perdue Farms of intimidation after he publicized animal welfare concerns.

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The story started last year when Watts, with the help of an animal-rights organization, released a video that showed what it really looks like inside the barns where he raises chicken for Perdue, the third largest poultry producer in the U.S. Watts illustrated just how meaningless long-used terms like “humanely raised,” “organic,” and “cage free” really are.

The video has been seen over 1.5 million times. Since then, Watts says he’s suffered ongoing reprisal from Perdue – the company he grows chickens for. He’s been put on a “performance improvement plan,” which means he’s being constantly monitored. In the two months since Watts went public he says he received 23 visits from company representatives and two independent audits and visits from government inspectors. On one occasion inspectors noted three dirty light bulbs in one of Watt’s four growing sheds.

Watts told Fusion this was, “ridiculous…Dust? In a shed full of 30,000 chickens?”

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Fusion asked Perdue for comment on the lawsuit.  "We have not received any lawsuit or notification of complaint from any contract grower," the company responded.

Despite being a solid producer for over 20 years, Watts told Fusion he’d expected some sort of retaliation from the company for speaking out. After all, he's taking on one of the most profitable and powerful industries in the U.S. But the Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower advocacy group, has taken on Craig’s case.

“This is retaliation plain and simple…the farmer speaks up, the industry swats him down,” Amanda Hitt, Watts’s attorney, told Fusion. “Contract growers are no strangers to being on the wrong side of the bargain. But this time a farmer is taking back the power.”

Watts's story reveals as much about the way farmers are treated as how chickens are treated. A Pew study from 2001 calculated that 71% of chicken farmers in the U.S. live on or below the poverty line.

“I’m a slave on my own land,” says Watts. That’s because the meat industry has become increasingly consolidated. With $2 trillion annual sales, its influence is mighty. Meanwhile, farmers find themselves with little control over their livelihoods, languishing in debt.

“Debt makes a man very pliable,” Watts told Fusion. “There's two ways to control a man—a debt and a sword.” The average farm debt in the U.S. is currently over a million dollars per farm.

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In 2010 the Obama administration unsuccessfully attempted to reform the system of pay for farmers and prevent retaliation against them from companies.

Often there is very little farmers can do about the conditions they find themselves trapped in. Fusion has spoken to over 20 farmers who make similar claims. One farmer who previously spoke out against the industry gave a chilling prediction: “They will try to force him into submission by cutting his pay and, uh, and they will come in and they will start nit-picking him and his chicken houses,” This farmer chose to remain anonymous out of fear. “They will start harassing him and making his life miserable,” he told Fusion.

Watt's suit has been filed with the US Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration under the Food Safety Modernization Act which contains whistleblower provisions.
Read the entire complaint here.

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Over a six-month period, Fusion Investigates has followed Watts’s journey through an industry where animals are raised in cruel conditions, farmers are pushed to the edge of poverty, and those who dare to speak out live in fear. The Fusion Investigates special Cock Fight: One Man’s Battle Against the Chicken Industry will be broadcast on Fusion on Wednesday at 9 p.m. and on fusion.net.

Once labelled The Velvet Hammer, Alice is a muckraking, grime-chasing, crime-stopping investigative producer. She is passionate about justice and interpretive dance.