In recent years, increasing numbers of people are paying attention to where their food comes from and how it is produced. Those who still eat meat and poultry are turning away from “factory farms.” These consumers are seeking out free-range beef and chicken as well as pork from smaller facilities where the animals are at least treated humanely and slaughtered painlessly. They are willing to pay higher prices for “Certified Humane” meat products.

It’s something of which big commercial food processors have taken note. But what does that “Certified Humane” label really mean?

It’s a good question. California-based Foster Farms, still owned by the original family, is the largest poultry processing company on the West Coast With approximate 12,000 employees. Foster Farms enjoys annual revenues of over $2 billion. It’s had its fair share of controversy over the years, with allegations of employee intimidation, tainted products, environmental violations , and animal cruelty. In light of the video recording that has recently come to light, one wonders how Foster Farms managed to have its products labeled “Certified Humane.”

Chickens are part of an avian family that includes quail, turkeys, pheasants and other game birds (galliformes). These birds are traditionally not known for their intelligence.  However, they are highly social creatures, very communicative, and protective of their young (the term “mother hen” is well-deserved).  Recent studies demonstrate that these birds have advanced cognitive abilities comparable to those of cats, dogs and monkeys. They are capable of learning and even teaching their young.

They also feel terror and pain.

The treatment of birds shown in the leaked video might cause even the infamous 15th Century Romanian despot Vlad (“The Impaler”) Tepes to cringe. In an appalling number of scenes, workers are shown not only mishandling the birds, but also literally torturing them for their own amusement.

It begs the question of how Foster Farms managed to get that “Certified Humane” label on its product.

According to corporate officials at Foster Farms, management was unaware of the situation. In a statement to the press, a company spokesperson said the actions shown in the video recording were “inappropriate and counter to our stringent animal welfare standards, procedures and policies.” The statement also said that for the past 76 years, “animal welfare has always been a top priority for Foster Farms. We believe raising chickens humanely is simply the right thing to do, and we take our commitment to humane values very seriously.”

Foster Farms employees are supposed to undergo yearly training in the proper and humane handling of the birds. Company representatives told reporters that the employees in the video have been suspended and an internal investigation has begun. At the same time, the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department is conducting its own investigation of the allegations.




K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.