Global retailer Costco is facing legal firepower from company stakeholders after an animal-rights group released what it claimed to be an undercover video inside a poultry processing facility. A lawsuit was filed June 13 in Washington state alleging mistreatment and mishandling of birds at the facility run by a Costco contractor.
While the poultry industry faces major inflation costs, the major wholesale brand has held their decade-long $4.99 rotisserie chicken prices steady following the 2019 opening of their plant in Fremont, Nebraska.
Currently the fifth-largest retailer in the world, Costco supplies about 100 million rotisserie chickens per year. The $450 million plant included the hire of as many as 1,000 Nebraskans to assist with running its facilities and has partnered with hundreds of local farmers.
The animal-abuse-allegation lawsuit was filed by shareholders Krystal Smith and Tyler Lobdell in Washington because that’s Costco’s home state. Claiming that Costco is in violation of Nebraska and Iowa livestock welfare laws, the suit is tied into the hidden-camera video available on YouTube and the related allegations by the animal-rights group Mercy for Animals.
The organization has in the past been known to make overstated claims in their “undercover” videos. In one instance from a few years back, Mercy for Animals claimed to show “horrific animal abuse” inside a chicken processing facility, yet when reviewed by an expert panel composed of a veterinarian, an animal scientist, and an ethicist, the video was found to show no indications of animal abuse.
The Mercy for Animals lawsuit accuses Costco of violating animal welfare laws and breaking fiduciary duties while neglecting and abandoning their birds. The stakeholders accuse Costco of raising birds that grow unnaturally fast and large, affecting their ability to stand on their own, while at the same time criticizing that the birds don’t have enough room to run freely.
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Mercy for Animals has long-promoted a vegan diet and touts their mission to end industrial farming. The Costco stakeholders who filed suit are also no strangers to filing suits against agricultural-based companies:
- Krystal Smith, a long time vegan, studied animal law in law school. Smith has worked as the education outreach coordinator for the Humane Society of the United States, another radical animal-rights organization.
- Tyler Lobdell’s work has focused on “combating factory farming”. Lobdell is employed by Food and Water Watch as a staff attorney and previously worked as the Animal Legal Defence Fund’s Food Law Fellow.
The lawsuit filed states, “If Costco continues its illegal mistreatment of chickens, it risks undermining its long-running and successful traffic-generation strategy. As more consumers learn of the mistreatment of Costco chickens, the benefits reaped using loss-leading rotisserie chickens to drive customer traffic and purchases … will vanish or greatly diminish because consumer preferences to not buy products made illegally or unethically will trump the lure of a ‘cheap’ chicken.”
Costco released a statement in September regarding the welfare of their broilers stating, “Costco Wholesale is committed to the welfare of animals in its supply chains. This includes broilers, which are chickens raised for meat. Although these chickens have a life cycle of less than 45 days, their welfare is as important as that of animals that have longer life cycles.”
Birds raised by Costco grow to an average weight of 6.10 pounds, smaller than the industry average of 6.25 pounds. The company raises birds in uncaged barns following standards set by the National Chicken Council, which represents all but 5 percent of the broiler chicken production in the United States.
Animal agriculturists have long understood that death is a part of life. Mitigating death loss and improving animal health, however, is a large part of operating a financially sound and productive operation. Typical flocks of broilers run at about 25,000 birds with a 3 percent death loss. This loss creates up to 2,000 pounds of carcasses during each six-week growing period. Companies that raise broilers have to have management and disposal options in place to dispose of dead birds.