Group alleges ‘hidden-camera’ video reveals ‘cruelty’ in chicken production in Kentucky 

Kentucky Lantern

An animal protection advocacy group released footage from a “hidden-camera investigation” Monday of what it says is cruel treatment of chickens being transported from poultry operations in Kentucky — an investigation the group says would be criminalized under a bill recently approved by the Kentucky legislature.

Mercy For Animals, a California-based nonprofit which describes its mission as to “end industrial animal agriculture by constructing a just and sustainable food system,” in its published video showed workers throwing chickens into cages for transport. Some chickens are kicked and thrown around as workers navigate the enclosure, and at least one chicken is stepped on as a worker tries to catch it. The video narrator says six-week-old birds living in “overcrowded barns” are “kicked, thrown and stuffed into cramped transport cages.”

A separate video the group shared with the Lantern details documentation, including screenshots of GPS locations the group’s investigator visited and video of the investigator allegedly talking with other workers. They appear to show the poultry houses, which the group describes as contract farms, are in Western Kentucky and provide chickens to Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the country’s largest poultry producers with a meatpacking plant in Graves County.

Sen. John Schickel (LRC Public Information)

The group is releasing the footage as part of its opposition to Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Sen. John Schickel, R-Union, which would criminalize using drones or recording equipment at commercial food processing and manufacturing plants and concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) without the permission of the operation’s owner or manager. 

The legislation, which is now at the desk of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear for his consideration, would also criminalize the distribution of such footage at food processing plants or CAFOs. The bill would make exceptions for utility workers and state and federal law enforcement and regulators.

Alex Cerussi, a senior state policy manager for the group, in a statement said “whistleblowing is an important safeguard against unsanitary practices” in the absence of robust government oversight of “factory farms.” 

“Kentucky’s Senate Bill 16 is dangerous legislation blatantly designed to keep the public in the dark about cruelty and hazards in industrial animal agriculture,” Cerussi said. “This bill isn’t about protecting small Kentucky family farms; it’s about shielding massive corporations from accountability for the harms they cause to animals, workers, and consumers. The public deserves to know what happens in factory farms and food-processing facilities.”

The Lantern tried to contact JBS, the international meatpacking company that owns Pilgrim’s Pride, through its online media inquiries form to ask about the footage and whether workers are paid by the number of chickens caught, as Mercy For Animals alleges. The company has not responded. Messages sent to Jamie Guffey, the executive director of the industry group Kentucky Poultry Federation, asking about the standard protocol for handling chickens in poultry houses, were not immediately returned. 

Critics of the legislation have characterized SB 16 as the latest in a long line of so-called “ag-gag” bills enacted around the country to block whistleblowers from investigating the practices and conduct of industrial agriculture. A lobbyist with the Humane Society of the United States has also questioned whether SB 16 is constitutional on First Amendment grounds, and the environmental legal advocacy group Kentucky Resources Council has expressed concerns about the bill’s unintended legal consequences.

A federal appeals court struck down a similar law enacted in 2015 in North Carolina, a decision the U.S. Supreme Court last year let stand.

Legislative debate

Proponents of the legislation, including a lobbyist for Tyson Foods and the industry group Kentucky Poultry Federation, have argued SB 16 is needed to prevent harassment and endangerment of employees and livestock at these facilities. Schickel, the bill’s sponsor, had previously told the Lantern that “agriculture by its nature can be distasteful to some” and that “these businesses have to protect their operations and their customers.”

SB 16 passed on largely party line votes through the GOP-dominated legislature during this legislative session. An email sent to a spokesperson for Beshear asking whether the governor planned to sign, veto or let SB 16 become law without his signature was not immediately returned. 

Democrats in the Kentucky House of Representatives unsuccessfully last week tried to add additions to the bill through floor amendments, one of which would have clarified employees of these facilities would be protected from “retaliation or discrimination” for making public “any wrongdoing or documentation of noncompliance of any federal, state, or local law or regulation.”

Rep. Al Gentry, D-Louisville. (LRC Public Information)

Rep. Al Gentry, D-Louisville, said he had heard Tyson Foods’ lobbyist say it wasn’t the intent of SB 16 to interfere with whistleblower protections for employees, but he hoped his floor amendment would make that clear. 

“If we vote no on this amendment, to me I think it shows there is a lack of concern for this potential situation that could exist and for employees that find themselves in a difficult predicament,” Gentry said.

Rep. Richard Heath, R-Mayfield, whose district includes the Pilgrim’s Pride meatpacking plant in Graves County, said he’d talked with the lobbyist for Tyson Foods along with the sponsor of SB 16 who considered the floor amendment “unfriendly.” 

Gentry’s floor amendment was voted down 27-49. 

Heath on the House floor said the bill protected “food processors” including Pilgrim’s Pride in his district, along with protecting “the farmers who raise livestock and poultry” from an “unauthorized intrusion.” 

“This is a private property protection bill for the folks who produce and process the food of our state and who employ thousands,” Heath said. 

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Kentucky Lantern is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kentucky Lantern maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Jamie Lucke for questions: info@kentuckylantern.com. Follow Kentucky Lantern on Facebook and Twitter. Kentucky Lantern stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

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