Pilgrim's Pride Sued Over "Natural" Chicken Marketing

Pilgrim's Pride chicken with a "100% Natural" label. ( Mario Villafuerte, Bloomberg )

American consumers willingly pay more for foods advertised as “natural,” “organic” or “humane.” Food companies took notice long ago, adding such pledges to all manner of products. But it can be challenging for shoppers to figure out whether those promises are real or empty branding. 

A lawsuit against chicken giant Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., filed by advocacy groups Food & Water Watch Inc. and Organic Consumers Association, turns on this very question. And they filed it in what’s arguably one of the most consumer-friendly courts in America. 

At issue is the Greeley, Colorado-based company’s marketing claims that its birds are fed “only natural ingredients,” treated humanely and produced in an environmentally responsible way, according to a complaint filed on Wednesday in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia in Washington.

The company’s practices don’t live up to those claims, the plaintiffs alleged. The birds live in crowded, unsanitary warehouses, are abused by employees and have debilitating health conditions due to their breed, which was developed to grow fast, according to court papers. They’re raised with the help of routine use of antibiotics to promote growth and fed genetically modified organisms, the advocacy groups alleged in the filing. 

“Contrary to Pilgrim’s Pride’s representations, the chickens who become these products are, as a matter of standard business practices, treated in unnatural, cruel, and inhumane manners, from hatching through slaughter,” according to the complaint. The plaintiffs, represented by Richman Law Group and Animal Equality, are seeking an injunction and corrective advertising. 

“We strongly disagree with these allegations and look forward to defending our approach to animal welfare and sustainability,” said Misty Barnes, a spokeswoman for Pilgrim’s Pride.

Pilgrim’s Pride now faces challenges about its marketing on multiple fronts. In December the company was the subject of a complaint filed by the Humane Society of the United States with the Federal Trade Commission, which said Pilgrim’s Pride was “scalding fully conscious chickens” as a result of its methods for slaughter, yet stating on its website at the time that its birds were being produced “as humanely as possible. ”

At the time, Cameron Bruett, a spokesman for Pilgrim’s Pride, a subsidiary of Brazilian meat processing giant JBS SA, 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. “We welcome the opportunity to defend our approach to animal welfare against these false allegations.”  

The language cited by the Humane Society subsequently disappeared from multiple places on the company’s website. Pilgrim’s Pride said at the time that the change in language was part of a long-planned update.

“It’s a tough position that the company finds itself in,” said attorney John E. Villafranco, who practices advertising law at Kelley Drye & Warren LLP. The district where the lawsuit was filed has “maybe the most permissive consumer protection statute in the country.”