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An agribusiness whistleblower alleges he was terminated in August 2020 from his contract with Perdue after he revealed animal abuse and poor sanitation to the media and public.
Perdue accused Rudy Howell, a North Carolina resident who had a 25 year-plus relationship with the poultry producer, of breaching his contract when he toured groups of visitors inside of his poultry houses. The corporation claimed it was a violation of their "poultry welfare" and "bio-security programs" as well as COVID-19 safety protocols.
But as a whistleblower complaint [PDF] filed with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) of the U.S. Labor Department outlines, Perdue never issued "specific COVID-19 protocols for poultry farmers like Howell."
On July 8, 2020, Howell invited "four public health advocates"—Crystal Coast Waterkeeper Larry Baldwin, Lumber Riverkeeper Jefferson Currie II, Cape Fear Riverkeeper Kemp Burdette, and Kelly Guerin, a videographer for We Animals Media (WAM)—to tour.
A supervisor was notified ahead of time of the planned visit, and Howell "requested four sets of coveralls for the visitors, consistent with bio-security protocols."
Despite internal complaints, Perdue apparently did nothing to address Howell's concerns with the health and safety of the chicks he was growing. He spoke to The Guardian for a report that was published under the headline, "'I can't get above water': how America's chicken giant Perdue controls farmers." He showed members of the community what Perdue was doing and only after that did Perdue cease business with Howell.
In mid-to-late 2019, the complaint states, "Howell observed that he was having to cull [slaughter] uncharacteristically high numbers of sickly birds." He "culled" 148 birds in one farm house on June 27, 2019. Other growers were having the same problem with their birds.
Howell additionally observed in November 2019 that scales "used to determine when the maximum number of birds had been put in an individual cage for transport" were not functioning. "Catch screws did not know how many birds were in the transport cages, and some cages were thus overfilled." It led to unsanitary conditions and threats to animal welfare, which were reported to Perdue.
The factory farmer allegedly supplied "poor quality feed and sickly chicks" to Howell. They were "careless and abusive with chickens, delivering chicks in filthy trays, failing to sanitize trailers and catch machines, and willfully dropping chickens on their heads during their weighing."
Howell informed an official with the U.S. Department of Agriculture on April 30, 2020, that Perdue was providing dirty trays. On June 1, he reported sanitation issues with the catch machine to Perdue. (Catch machines use "rubber fingers on rotating drums to catch and move chickens into cages for loading onto a truck.")
The catch machine allegedly was dirty and had a "dead chicken" from prior use. Perdue's trailers were allegedly filthy too, all of which the complaint argues violated the corporation's bio-security and sanitation policies.
Without any action from Perdue, Howell led a tour of a chicken house on July 8, where Kelly Guerin of We Animals Media recorded footage of the flock. He told the advocates about the large number of birds that arrived sick and had to be "culled."
Howell described how Perdue disregarded and ignored his concerns and pointed out two birds designated for euthanization because they were injured and "too small to reach food and water freely."
Guerin asked if she could take the sick chicks home, which Howell allowed. She later shared what she observed and how Howell allowed her to rescue the chicks.
Perdue claims Howell "converted" the "property" by giving Guerin the chicks, yet "an individual chick, even in perfect health, is valued at less than one dollar."
The complaint maintains the Food Safety Modernization Act protected Howell's disclosures, and he should be reinstated to his contract with Perdue. If he is not reinstated, he demands "front pay."
Additionally, Howell seeks lost wages and bonuses, compensation for the loss of value to his farm and equipment, and damages for the pain, suffering, and mental anguish caused, especially as it relates to the injury to his career and reputation.
Howell, as the Guardian reported, is in his 70s. He "took over his father-in-law's poultry contract business" in the 1990s. The work involved long hours, left him "deep in debt," and he "earned less than $40,000 in 2019." This is "well below the average U.S. wage."
Perdue "exerted an extreme level of control over Howell and his farm operations sufficient to operate as Howell's employer," according to the complaint. The corporation determined the "number and breed of chickens Howell raised, the time allowed for processing each flock, and placement for future flocks."
Howell was required to use Perdue's feed, Perdue's medication, Perdue's vaccines, and Perdue's supplies for growing chicken and turkey flocks. Perdue owned the chickens. And Howell's flocks were required to meet a certain standard of "competitiveness."
A "tournament system" ranked farmers against each other, with "top-ranked farmers" paid up to 50 percent more than bottom-ranked farmers.
By allegedly providing sickly chicks to Howell, not only was Perdue permitting abuse and mistreatment of their poultry, which impacted their product, but the factory farmer was also making it nearly impossible for Howell to run a profitable operation.
In June 2020, a federal court struck down what is known as an “ag-gag” law and declared it unconstitutional. These are essentially corporate-backed farm secrecy statutes intended to suppress and criminalize speech about industrial agricultural production.
Agribusiness especially aims to discourage employees from taking photos or recording video, like what Guerin recorded, which may expose abuse or misconduct.
The alleged retaliation against Howell occurred in August only two months after this happened. One could say Perdue was enforcing their own version of an “ag-gag” policy against a whistleblower, since they could no longer fully depend on the state law in North Carolina to discourage such action.