Pilgrim’s Pride Drops Some Chicken Welfare Claims Amid ‘Scalding’ Complaint

(Bloomberg) -- In the days following an 81-page complaint filed with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission alleging “misleading” descriptions of its animal welfare standards, industrial poultry producer Pilgrim’s Pride changed some of the wording on its website. 

As recently as last month, the company pledged that its chickens were “raised with the highest standards” and bred in “the best possible growout conditions.” Then, in a Dec. 12 complaint, the Humane Society of the United States alleged that such assurances were misleading. Citing undercover investigations, U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection records and whistleblower accounts, the organization argued that, contrary to company statements about implementing the highest possible standards, the majority of birds raised and slaughtered for it suffer cruel and inhumane treatment.

The group said most Pilgrim’s Pride chickens spend the majority of their lives in filthy, dark barns—and are sometimes scalded alive during slaughter. 

Pilgrim’s Pride says it was a coincidence that, within 10 days of the FTC filing, it took down its website, Pilgrims.com, and unveiled a lightly redesigned successor, PilgrimsUSA.com. While much of the language used is similar or the same as the earlier iteration, some statements at issue in the Humane Society complaint—including those above—have been dropped or toned down.

On the Frequently Asked Questions page, for example, instead of assuring consumers that birds are raised “with the highest standards,” the company now simply ensures “that birds are treated humanely and raised with care.” 

Cameron Bruett, a Pilgrim’s Pride spokesperson, told Bloomberg “the website update has been in the works for several months and has no connection to the complaint.” 

Attorney John E. Villafranco, who practices advertising law at Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, said concern over potential litigation may be an explanation for the timing. 

“Advertisers may make changes in response to a complaint to limit liability down the road,” he said, adding that it’s unlikely the change was the result of any FTC directive, given how recently the Humane Society complaint was filed. FTC investigations are confidential and can yield a wide range of outcomes. An FTC spokesperson wasn’t available for comment, according to an automatic email response, because of the partial government shutdown. 

Like most broiler chickens in the U.S., Pilgrim’s Pride birds have been bred to grow so fast that their legs can’t support them, according to the Humane Society complaint. The breed grows unnaturally fast, reaching slaughter weight in a mere 50 days, and frequently suffers from cardiovascular problems, ruptured tendons and bone deformities, according to the filing.

The usually dark, windowless barns they live in are filled with feces, ammonia and dust, contributing to respiratory problems and eye lesions, according to the complaint. The buildings are so crowded that birds are afforded only about 100 square inches each.

Greeley, Colorado-based Pilgrim’s Pride, a unit of Brazilian meat processing giant JBS SA, has rejected the Humane Society’s allegations. Indeed, some of the statements assailed by the group in its complaint remain on the company’s website. Passages from Pilgrim’s Pride’s 2016 and 2017 sustainability reports, including references to its “uncompromising commitment” to humane animal welfare, have not been altered.

Pilgrim’s Pride states on the site that it follows industry guidelines “designed to promote the humane treatment and well-being of poultry throughout the production process.”

Peter Brandt, managing attorney of the Humane Society’s farm animals litigation arm, said his group has no plans to withdraw its FTC action, in part because the advertising is just a symptom of what the Humane Society sees as the larger problem.

“Ideally, they should clean up their practices,” Brandt said. “Failing that, they need to stop misleading consumers.”

“Pilgrim’s is committed to the well-being of the poultry under our care,” Bruett wrote in an email. “We welcome the opportunity to defend our approach to animal welfare against these false allegations.” 

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