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Why One Perdue Chicken Farmer Broke the Conspiracy of Silence

04/12/2014 15:47 GMT | Updated 01/02/2015 10:59 GMT

This year, in a highly surprising move, we befriended a chicken factory farmer.

On a hot mid-summer day, we drove though the dusty backroads of rural North Carolina, to meet Craig Watts at his farm.

In 1992, Craig went into chicken farming to feed his family and be his own boss. He soon found he was anything but. And, after 22 years of farming, he has done something no one has done before. He gave us, two long-standing animal welfare advocates, unrestricted access to his farm where he raises chickens for US poultry giant Perdue.

In the era of Ag-Gag and undercover investigations, when parts of the animal agriculture industry are actively trying to keep the American public in the dark about factory farming, this is an astonishing step. Craig literally opened up the doors on the notoriously secretive chicken industry to us and American investigative programme, Fusion TV.

Why did he do it?

Craig says: "This stuff is not as advertised. There are a lot of flaws in the system. The consumer's being hoodwinked, the farmer's being jerked around. You can wrap BS in a pretty bag and put a pretty ribbon on it, but at the end of the day it's BS and that's what you are getting sold. 5lb bags of it. That's what I was sold to get in to it. "

It brings to light a troubling truth. Americans think they are buying chickens raised in idyllic pasture when the meat is labelled "natural" or "antibiotic-free'.

What they are actually buying are chickens raised on a bed of feces -filled litter that hasn't been changed for years. They are buying chickens bred to get so big, so fast, they often can't stand on their own two legs. They are buying chickens raised in dimly lit warehouses, who never see the light of day except when coming from the hatchery or heading to the slaughterhouse.

With an image of green pastures in their mind, shoppers are buying chicken from a factory farm.

The video we made of our trip to Craig's farm details the living conditions of chickens he raises for Perdue, chickens that are being marketed as humanely raised, but are not. Perdue's claims are backed by the USDA Process Verified Program, giving them a seal of approval for their humanely raised claim.

Christopher Leonard in his book The Meat Racket explains that poultry companies like Perdue own every single aspect of the business - from the trucks to the slaughter plants, and even the genetics - except one: raising the birds.

This is the most risky and least profitable aspect of the business and is contracted out to farmers. The farmers take out substantial loans to sign up to this business and the only way to pay off that loan is to keep raising chickens. Under the weight of these enormous debts, few farmers are willing to speak up and risk losing their only means for paying off their loans.

Craig says: "I took out a $400,000 loan for a minimum wage job."

His situation is not uncommon. According to a Pew research study, 71% of chicken farmers are living below the poverty line, for the privilege of raising birds for these billion dollar companies.

Bound by contract, he is not able to give his chickens natural light or provide them with fresh air. He does not control the genetics or health of the birds, which are delivered to him. He does not decide how many birds are packed into the shed, nor is he allowed to provide an enriched environment that could make their lives better.

He says: "If you give them natural light, the birds are more active. [Perdue] doesn't want that. They want him sitting down, getting up, getting water, a bite to eat, and sitting back down. He gets fat then."

When we ask him what he'd like to do for them, he smiles and says: "I'd give them back natural light and fresh air. Number one, it's better for them, and number two, it's better for all of us."

In the ensuing months that we spend with Craig, his breathing deteriorates. He has to use a respirator while working in the warehouse, where the air is choked full of ammonia and dust. He tells us he's become allergic to the feathers and dust and has to medicate daily just to work in his 'office'.

Americans eat more chicken than any other nation - the equivalent of 83.6 pounds per person every year. Chicken is the number one protein consumed in the United States, but the picture on the farm is often a far cry from the one on the label. For farmer and bird alike, it means an unhealthy, difficult, often painful life - even if the chicken is then marketed as "all natural" and "antibiotic-free."

Supermarkets and the USDA must correct the disparity between what the American consumer thinks they are buying and what they are actually buying. Craig is a pioneer, opening up his farm to show consumers how their chicken is produced. He's shown us the truth, now we need to question confusing or misleading chicken labelling and demand better options where both farmers and farmed animals are treated more fairly.

Through our Better Chicken Initiative, consumers can demand the USDA and supermarkets stop aiding in the deception of consumers with misleading labels, and empower shoppers to exercise their values at the grocery store.

The co-author of this piece, Leah Garces, is Director of Compassion in World Farming USA