HSUS Fight Over Pilgrim's Pride Chicken Claims Expands to Seven States

11:50AM Mar 13, 2019
Pilgrim's Pride Natural Chicken
Pilgrim's Pride chicken with a "100% Natural" label.
( Mario Villafuerte, Bloomberg )

Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. is facing a new front in its battle with the Humane Society of the United States over the way it raises, slaughters and sells its chickens.

The advocacy group said it’s following up on a December complaint filed with the Federal Trade Commission by sending letters to seven state attorneys general asking them to investigate the company and its claims about how it treats animals. 

The group said that, despite Pilgrim’s pledges that its birds are treated “humanely,” they are instead raised in crowded barns and slaughtered through a method that can result in chickens being “drowned in scalding hot water while fully conscious.” 

In its filing with the FTC, the Humane Society alleged the company was misleading consumers with claims that its chickens are “raised, transported and processed as humanely as possible.” Last month, consumer advocacy groups Food & Water Watch Inc. and Organic Consumers Association filed a lawsuit that also alleged the company was engaged in deceptive marketing. At the time, Pilgrim’s Pride said it “strongly” disagreed with the lawsuit’s allegations.

Following the Humane Society’s FTC complaint, the company changed some of the language on its website, though it said the timing was a coincidence. On the website, passages from Pilgrim’s Pride’s 2016 and 2017 sustainability reports include references to its “uncompromising commitment” to humane animal welfare. 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.”

The revised statements don’t remedy the problem, the Humane Society said. “They falsely convey to the reasonable consumer that birds in Pilgrim’s care are treated humanely,” the group wrote. On Friday, the Humane Society said it petitioned state attorneys general in Massachusetts, Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, Illinois and Maryland, urging them to open investigations of their own.

The offices of the Maryland, Washington and Illinois attorneys general confirmed they received the letter but declined to comment. Florida and Massachusetts said they were reviewing the letter. Pennsylvania declined to immediately comment, while the Virginia attorney general’s office, the FTC, the National Chicken Council and Pilgrim’s Pride didn’t respond.

Cameron Bruett, a spokesman for Pilgrim’s Pride, a Greeley, Colorado-based subsidiary of Brazilian meat processing giant JBS SA, has previously rejected the Humane Society’s allegations. “Pilgrim’s is committed to the well-being of the poultry under our care,” Bruett wrote in an email in December. “We welcome the opportunity to defend our approach to animal welfare against these false allegations.”

John Villafranco, a specialist in advertising law at Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, said the Humane Society is “covering all the bases.”

“They are pressing every venue to find one where there might be a regulator willing to take action,” he said in an interview.

The strategy has had success in the past: After a sustained campaign by the animal welfare group Compassion Over Killing, in 2005, the United Egg Producers reached an agreement with the FTC to change its “Animal Care Certified” logo to “United Egg Producers Certified.” The trade group settled with 16 states and the District of Columbia, agreeing to pay $100,000 to states in legal fees, consumer education and other costs.