The “humane” terms on your chicken label are probably misleading you

Last fall, an undercover investigator worked for two months at a Virginia farm outside Richmond that raises chickens on contract for Tyson Foods, America’s largest chicken company. During their short stint on behalf of the Washington, DC-based animal rights group Animal Outlook, the investigator documented hours upon hours of the typical horrors found on chicken factory farms: tens of thousands of birds stuffed into dark warehouse-sized barns, many of them severely injured with gruesome lesions, injuries, and deformities. At more than one point, birds are deprived of feed or water, and there was also a rat infestation and footage of bugs crawling in the chickens’ feed.

The conditions are visibly at odds with Tyson’s advertising claims that it treats animals humanely and raises “happy” and “healthy” chickens.

“It’s just a living nightmare,” the investigator, who requested anonymity due to the covert nature of undercover investigations, told Vox. “A video just does not do it any justice.”

In August, after this story was initially published, the contract farm owner and manager were each charged with multiple counts of criminal animal cruelty under Virginia law. Neither Tyson nor any of its direct employees have been charged.

“We were disturbed by what we saw in the video,” Tyson Foods spokesperson Kelsie Gibbs wrote to Vox over email in May. “Since January 2023, no Tyson Foods birds have been placed on this farm and the farmer no longer has a contract to grow for Tyson Foods.” (In March, Tyson Foods announced it was shutting down operations in the area.)

When reached by phone in May, before the charges were filed, farm owner Amir Saeed declined to comment on the record about Animal Outlook’s footage.

Despite the horrific findings, they’re not all that different from the conditions documented at other farms that raise chickens for Tyson and Tyson’s competitors. But the investigation’s most revealing finding had nothing to do with the conditions of the estimated 750,000 chickens raised annually at the Jetersville, Virginia, facility. Instead, it emerged from a surprisingly candid conversation the investigator secretly recorded between the farm manager and a Tyson Foods “broiler technician advisor,” who worked with Tyson chicken farms in the area. In the video recording, the technician freely acknowledged that the chicken industry’s “free-range” labels were essentially meaningless — a rare instance of an industry insider saying the quiet part out loud.

Bringing up a Tyson competitor, the farm manager wonders how other poultry companies handle supposedly free-range-raised chickens. The short answer: They don’t, really.

“Those birds don’t go outside — you know that,” the technician replies. “They don’t all go out … Look that up online.”

The manager chimes in: “It’s not like they make it like all of ’em come out and enjoy the sun.”

“That is strictly for commercial [advertising] purposes,” the technician says. “They pick the prettiest birds [for commercials] and they toss ’em out in the grass.”

The technician adds that “breeder” birds — the breeding hens and roosters who supply farms with the chickens known as “broilers,” which go on to actually be slaughtered for meat — “are way prettier than the broilers are, so those are usually the ones they use for our commercials.”

To be clear, this wasn’t some sort of gotcha moment. While this particular farm was not free-range, the conversation reveals a dirty secret within the meat industry: Actual conditions on “free-range” labeled meat, along with similar humanely raised claims, are a far cry from the Old MacDonald image the term conjures of chickens out on pasture, soaking up the sun. Such labels amount to what animal rights activists call “humanewashing.”

“Usually people in [the technician’s] type of position are very guarded about what they say,” the investigator told Vox. “For her to be so blatant and upfront about this — I was really shocked.”

Tyson Foods did not respond to a question about its employee’s free-range comments.

Free-range labeling, and “humanewashing,” explained

The “free-range” label — along with many other animal-raising claims made on meat, dairy, and egg packaging — is effectively governed by an honor system.

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) says chicken producers using the label “free-range” must provide birds “continuous, free access to the outside” for over 51 percent of their 6.5-week lives. But there are no USDA auditors who come out to inspect the farm, nor are there specific requirements for how much time the birds spend outside or the quality and size of the outdoor area. In fact, having “access” to the outdoors doesn’t guarantee that “free-range” chickens will go outdoors at all.

To qualify as free-range, a company simply must fill out a USDA form explaining how it will ensure the animals are “raised in a manner consistent with the meaning of the raising claim,” a description of how the animals are raised, and how it will trace and segregate the product from other products. Per USDA rules, a small opening in a barn longer than a football field holding 35,000 chickens would suffice.

“Under current law, USDA does not have the authority to conduct on-farm oversight for label claims approved by the Food Safety and Inspection Service, including those for ‘free range,’” a USDA spokesperson told Vox over email. “USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, a different agency charged with administering market facilitation activities, does offer a fee-for-service, voluntary audit program called the Process Verified Program that can verify these types of claims.”

A small portion of Tyson’s chicken supply is free range-labeled under its Smart Chicken label, a brand it acquired as part of its acquisition of Tecumseh Poultry for $382 million in 2018. Some of Smart Chicken’s products are USDA Organic-certified and audited by Certified Humane, a non-governmental animal welfare program with higher standards than most programs.

Tyson did not respond to questions pertaining to what percent of its chicken meat supply is classified as free-range or USDA Organic-certified.

In reality, free-range farms can look much like the conventional Virginia farm investigated by Animal Outlook — tens of thousands of chickens crammed into dimly lit warehouses. The main difference is that a free-range barn must have openings for chickens to access pasture. But because there are so many chickens in each barn and no USDA requirements with regards to openings, there’s no guarantee on whether all of them can regularly access the outdoors or how much time they’ll spend outside once they get there.

In 2017, the Intercept reported an investigation into a dozen California farms owned by a free-range chicken company that found no evidence of any animals spending any time outdoors. The chief animal care officer for Perdue Farms, a major chicken producer, has even said the vast majority of its free-range chickens stay indoors.

A photo of chickens crowded in a dim barn.

A photograph from a 2017 undercover investigation by the animal rights group Direct Action Everywhere into one of several free-range chicken farms. The farms raised birds with healthier genetics, but the group didn’t find any birds spending time outside and documented several welfare issues.
Direct Action Everywhere

Many birds may not be able to even muster the strength to get outdoors and walk about: Chickens raised for meat have been bred to grow so large, so fast, that their spindly legs often buckle under the enormous weight of their bodies. The cruelty is built into their genetics, forcing them to live in chronic pain and struggle to stand.

In another portion of Animal Outlook’s footage, when the investigator asked the farm manager why so many chickens couldn’t move, he was blunt: “They’re just fucked up.” This may have been why the manager and Tyson technician found the notion of chickens free-roaming outdoors so laughable.

The American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, a nonprofit that advocates for raising chickens on pasture — meaning largely outdoors with some indoor access — characterizes the free-range deception this way: “[USDA’s free-range label has] a broad definition, and it’s abused by the large poultry integrators with a government-sanctioned loophole. Free-range implies a bird on range or pasture, but pasture or outdoors is not actually required or enforced. This is a fundamental deceit in the free-range organic chicken, turkey, or eggs that you buy from commercial poultry brands.”

Farms that actually provide animals with plenty of space and outdoor access, or that raise “heritage” chicken breeds that grow at a slower pace and suffer fewer health issues tied to their genetics, are vanishingly rare. One estimate, from animal welfare research and advocacy group Sentience Institute that uses USDA data on farm size, concluded that over 99 percent of America’s farmed chickens live on factory-style farms.

According to the National Chicken Council, a chicken meat industry trade group, less than 1 percent of America’s chicken is classified as free-range.

Some animal-raising claims are more comprehensive or strictly defined, like “organic” and “cage-free” (for eggs), which actually require hens to be free from cages. It’s hardly a utopia for the animals, but is an improvement upon the terribly low conditions found on standard egg farms — though “organic,” notably, has less to do with the animals’ living conditions than it has to do with what the animals are fed.

There’s also rarely any difference in how birds raised in higher-welfare settings are treated at slaughter, as federal slaughter laws don’t cover poultry. According to a 2021 ProPublica investigation, humane-labeled chicken is often processed in the same slaughterhouses, owned by companies like Tyson, as conventional meat.

According to Vox contributor Jessica Scott-Reid, many other labels — like humanely raised, ethically raised, sustainable, humane, raised by family farmers — have no legal definition and are marketing terms that tell consumers nothing about how the animals or the environment are actually treated.

For example, one of Tyson’s brands is called “Nature Raised,” but many animals likely don’t have access to nature. (A few of its Nature Raised products are USDA Organic-certified — which does require outdoor access if not much else for animal welfare — but most are not, and Tyson did not respond to a question about what percent of its chickens have outdoor access.)

There’s a clear commercial aim with many of these humane claims. For example, an executive at poultry giant Mountaire Farms had this to say about the animal welfare rating program One Health Certified during an industry webinar: “The one thing you want a label to do is to reduce consumer concerns with buying your product.” Here’s how Consumer Reports’ director of food policy Brian Ronholm characterized that program in a Food Safety News column: “This label is essentially meaningless and should be ignored by consumers. In addition to being confusing and misleading, the label represents the equivalent of a participation trophy for normal operations.”

Tyson and many of its competitors have been the subject of lawsuits and regulatory complaints alleging that their advertising and packaging deceive consumers. Richman Law and Policy, a law firm that specializes in animal welfare and environmental law, has filed a lawsuit in Washington, DC’s Superior Court and two complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) alleging that Tyson misleads consumers over its treatment of animals, the environment, its slaughter and farm workforce, and the naturalness of its products.

“This is not simply a matter of sensitive animal advocates having their feelings hurt,” said Chris Green, executive director of Harvard Law School’s Animal Law & Policy Program, over email to Vox. “A number of successful lawsuits have indicated that humanewashing is quite prevalent in the meat, egg, and dairy industries, often crossing the line into deceptive false advertising.”

In a 2020 motion to dismiss Richman Law’s lawsuit, Tyson said animal welfare and environmental claims made in its marketing were “aspirational in nature and discuss goals and commitments, rather than guarantees,” and that they wouldn’t mislead any “reasonable consumer.”

Meat industry advertising vs. reality

Animal Outlook’s investigation documented conditions at the Virginia contract farm through one growing cycle — from the time Tyson delivered a flock of 150,000 newborn chicks to the facility until they reached slaughter weight at six weeks old. The investigator found chicks deprived of food and water after Tyson delivered feed late, causing some to die off, chickens struggling to stand, and many chickens with dire injuries. Workers tossed chickens and wrung their necks to cull them.

When it was time to transport the birds to slaughter, they’re videotaped being thrown into metal crates to be loaded on to trucks “in ways that cause bone fractures and major internal organ damage,” veterinarian Sherstin Rosenberg, who has cared for thousands of chickens in her work as executive director of Happy Hen Animal Sanctuary in California, told Vox after viewing the footage.

“I have reviewed footage of diseased, injured birds denied food, water, and veterinary care on dozens of poultry farms, but the footage I just watched is by far the worst on-farm animal neglect and abuse I have seen,” Rosenberg said. “You almost couldn’t design a more torturous setting,” she said, adding that the video shows dying and dead chickens in “advanced states of decomposition” with the potential to “spread infectious disease to the other birds, human workers, and unsuspecting Tyson customers.”

The inside of a large chicken barn with around 25,000 chickens.

A photograph from the investigation into a Tyson Foods supplier. There are around 25,000 chickens in this one barn.
Animal Outlook

A photograph from the investigation into a contract farm that raises chickens for Tyson Foods. Chickens have been bred to grow much larger and much faster than chickens in the past, which can lead to severe leg and joint issues.
Animal Outlook

Animal Outlook’s investigator also documented bugs crawling in the chickens’ feed, and rat infestations — problems echoed by the Tyson technician in the undercover video.

“The little baby chicks are gonna peck at those bugs, eat them, and then they’re gonna die,” Tyson’s technician told the farm manager in a conversation recorded by the investigator. “You got rats in there, you got fresh rat activity in all your houses.” Despite these known issues, Animal Outlook alleges Tyson delivered fresh chicks to the farm.

In the video, the technician also appears to make an allegation to the manager that Tyson doesn’t feel the need to improve conditions at the facility because of a lack of competing chicken companies in the area. “Tyson doesn’t want to pay for anything — not here, at least,” she said. “We don’t have any competition here, so they don’t have to do extra stuff here. They do extra stuff at other complexes where they got other producers.”

Responding to these comments, Gibbs of Tyson Foods told Vox via email, “We depend on thousands of independent farmers to raise birds for our business, and we want them to succeed — because when they’re successful, so are we. Independent poultry growers who contract with Tyson Foods are responsible for meeting all contract requirements, which include performing routine and preventive maintenance.”

The investigator also documented alleged violations of Virginia’s biosecurity laws at the farm, meant to slow the spread of disease, such as bird flu, which has ravaged the poultry business and resulted in the culling of nearly 60 million chickens and turkeys in the US since early 2022. Farm staff often reportedly failed to sanitize their boots (which Virginia regulations explicitly require) before entering the chicken sheds, the investigator documented, and Tyson’s technician was recorded saying that outside vendors don’t wear personal protective equipment in the sheds. “They don’t wear anything coming in the [chicken] houses,” she said. “It is what it is.”

Animal Outlook hoped criminal charges would be brought against Tyson, in addition to employees of the contract farm. In a 95-page legal complaint sent to Amelia County Animal Control on January 25, Animal Outlook argued Tyson (along with the contract farm and individuals associated with it) violated state animal cruelty and biosecurity laws because it claims Tyson’s employee knew — as the investigator documented on tape — about the poor conditions on the farm, yet the company continued to work with them. Animal Control brought it to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office, which then forwarded the complaint to the Virginia Attorney General’s office, according to Animal Outlook attorney Jareb Gleckel.

The Amelia County commonwealth’s attorney didn’t return a request for comment in May, before the charges were filed. The Virginia attorney general’s office declined to comment. In 2017, the Virginia attorney general prosecuted employees for cruelty to chickens at another Tyson contract grower.

Animal rights groups have faced criticism, including from within the animal rights movement, for seeking criminal charges against mid- and low-level workers. Many such employees are socioeconomically vulnerable — often they’re low-income and/or undocumented immigrants — and aren’t responsible for creating factory farm conditions.

The structure of chicken farming also makes it hard for workers to do their jobs without engaging in animal cruelty. Often meat companies fire low-level workers or sever ties with contract farms after investigations surface but ignore the systemic welfare issues in meat production. As journalist Eyal Press, author of Dirty Work, a book on jobs in morally troubling industries like poultry, put it in a Vox podcast interview: “On the rare occasions when the curtain is pulled back and we see this dirty work going on, the blame goes to the lowest-ranking people at the bottom, and that’s very convenient for society.”

Cheryl Leahy, executive director of Animal Outlook, said the organization is focused on systemic change and holding corporations accountable, and she’s written about the “downward scapegoating” that meat companies engage in by placing blame on low-level workers. But she believes animal cruelty laws should be enforced, whatever level of employment the perpetrator holds.

“I am not of the mind that people who commit egregious cruelty should not be held liable for it just because they’re doing it in the course of their employment,” she said. “The bigger point, though, is you want to go after the people who really are responsible for it at a systematic level, and you want to be able to do things that will make it costly for them, and dissuade them in the future. That’s what criminal law really is for.”

However, holding meat companies legally accountable for how they treat animals is exceedingly difficult because there are no federal laws that protect animals while on the farm, and birds are exempt from federal slaughter and transport law. State laws are primarily enforced against those who abuse cats and dogs, not farmed animals. Undercover investigations have proven an effective way to expose common practices in the meat industry, though they’ve only led to broader change on occasion.

The structure of the industry also impedes accountability because chicken farmers are contractors for meat companies, not employees, so they’re set up as separate legal entities, providing a legal shield for the Tysons of the world. Many contract farmers also complain of exploitative practices from the meat companies for whom they contract, and say that the relationship is more like serfdom than independent farming.

Contract farmers can invest millions of dollars to build farms to raise birds for companies like Tyson, but those investments can crash in an instant when meat companies shut down the nearby slaughterhouses that the farmers supply birds to. Last week, citing an “inability to economically improve operations,” Tyson shuttered its Glen Allen, Virginia, slaughter plant, which employed 692 people. The closure will also affect the farmers who raised birds for the slaughter plant, including Saeed, the owner of the farm Animal Outlook investigated.

“The closure impacted 73 broiler poultry contracts (55 growers),” Gibbs of Tyson Foods said over email to Vox. “On March 14, we offered independent growers options to voluntarily conclude contracts early. If they select this option, they can either receive an upfront, lump sum incentive payment or over-time incentive payments based on individual past earnings. If they choose not to conclude early, they were paid through the length of their remaining contract, contingent on continuing to meet contract requirements.”

Tyson recently received $6 million in state subsidies to open a new Virginia slaughter plant near the North Carolina border.

Even if Tyson evades accountability, this investigation into the Virginia farm is one more case among many that underscores a key fact: Consumers should be deeply skeptical of meat labels and advertising. Tyson’s employee seemed to intuitively understand this. Her loose-lipped commentary may not lead to much industry change on its own, but it offers, if nothing else, a rare moment of accidental honesty in a sea of industry deception.

Update, August 2, 2 pm ET: This story was originally published on May 17 and has been updated to include details of the criminal charges filed in August against the contract farm’s owner and manager.