Lakeville Growers’ Petaluma Poultry, which provides products to Perdue Chicken in addition to direct sales to grocery stores, has built their brands on claims of raising organic and free range chicken. The company’s Rosie Organic Chickens were the first chickens to receive an Organic seal from the United States Department of Agriculture. The company’s other product, Rocky the Free Range Chicken, was created in 1986 in response to growing public concerns of factory farming and use of antibiotics on farm animals. The products are a supplier to one of the nation’s largest chicken producers, Perdue, which also commercially markets their products as organic and free range.
The animals rights organization, Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) provided exclusive undercover footage of visibly sick and starving birds at a Petaluma, California based Lakeville Growers’ Petaluma Poultry Farm, dispelling the company’s claims of raising organic and free range chickens.
“Our secret camera footage shows thousands of birds crowded in industrial sheds and no evidence of the birds stepping outside,” said Matt Johnson, a spokesperson for Direct Action Everywhere, in an email. The footage, gathered through an investigation conducted over the past several months, is a sharp contrast from marketing commercials created by Lakeville Growers that show chickens raised for the Rocky and Rosie products roaming free in a field.
On Saturday, September 29, around 200 Direct Action Everywhere activists descended on the Petaluma Poultry Farm in an attempt to save several visibly sick chickens from the facility. Some of the birds were provided with on-site veterinary care by the activists. All but one of the rescued chickens were removed from activists by police, and allegedly sent to animal control rather than placed back on the farm due to the health conditions of the seized chickens.
DxE argued that California Penal Code 597e provided them with the right to enter the poultry farm to rescue the chickens in duress. The code states that “in case any domestic animal is at any time so impounded and continues to be without necessary food and water for more than 12 consecutive hours, it is lawful for any person, from time to time, as may be deemed necessary, to enter into and upon any pound in which the animal is confined, and supply it with necessary food and water so long as it remains so confined. Such person is not liable for the entry.” In a legal opinion, University of California Hastings Law Professor Hadar Aviram affirmed this right to open rescue in citing this penal code and arguing in favor of a necessity defense.
The activists were met with a large police presence, including a police helicopter and a bus to transport those arrested.
58 activists were arrested at the farm during the attempted rescue action. “They were booked into the Sonoma County Jail for misdemeanor trespassing, felony burglary and felony conspiracy,” said Lieutenant Shawn Murphy of Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office in a press release. “One of the protesters was also arrested for assaulting the owner and employee. Their bail is set at $20,000.00.” The total bail for all 58 activists is more than $1.1 million. Over $10,000 in camera and video equipment was also reportedly seized and has not yet been returned to the activists.
One of the activists was fired from their job as a high school digital art teacher in Berkeley, California due to being arrested. “Apparently, they were going on the very limited facts of my arrest and because I am employed as a temporary (non-tenured) teacher, they had legitimate reason to fire me,” the activist, Corey Rowland, wrote in a Facebook post.
The activists dispute the claim of alleged assault, and provided video evidence of the farm’s owner physically shoving an activist and yelling at a passing truck to “run them over, I’ll pay you.”
“The police blocked us inside the farm. For about an hour, we had activists trying to rush the birds to medical assistance, and the police did not let us leave. We kept asking to the point of begging the police to get the birds to safety,” Priya Sawney, one of the activists with DxE who was arrested during the open rescue attempt, told us in an interview. “When I got out of jail on September 30, after 17 hours, the biggest shock was those rescued birds were all killed. They were quote ‘euthanized,’ but they were killed.”
The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office told me they gave the animals to animal control. Sonoma County Animal Services confirmed 9 of the 15 animals recovered, the ones that were still alive, were euthanized after a veterinarian said they would not be able to recover.
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On the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Facebook page, the administrator of the page responded in favor of comments criticizing the activists. “Butter and eggs!,” the page responded to a Facebook user who wrote on the sheriff office’s page, “Don't mess with our chickens in Ptown. Egg capital of the world.”
DxE claimed the farm’s practices are a result of the Trump Administration’s decision to rollback a rule proposed under Obama in 2016 to create a minimum standard of animal welfare for organic farms.
Under the proposed rules by the Obama Administration, pigs, chickens, and cows would have been required to have access to outdoor space in order to be considered organic under USDA requirements. There is currently little to no difference in how animals are treated between organic and non-organic animal agriculture operations. The proposed rule was withdrawn by the Trump Administration despite receiving only 28 public comments in support of revoking it out of 47,000 total.
There is also currently little to no regulations of free-range chicken farms, only that chickens be provided any outdoor access for an indeterminate amount of time per day to be considered free-range
Because of these lax regulations on organic animal agriculture operations, companies like Petaluma Poultry are legally able to sell their products under the labels of organic and free range, while maintaining living conditions for animals exhibited in the footage provided by Direct Action Everywhere. Petaluma Poultry touts their own definition of free range as “at least half the size of the poultry house and typically as big as the barn itself.”
Hidden camera footage provided by Direct Action Everywhere shows no chickens going outside during a 24 hour period.
Petaluma Poultry did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
“The welfare of the birds that are being raised for our company is paramount. We have a long history with this farm family,” said a spokesperson for Perdue in an email. “It is a certified Global Animal Partnership (GAP 2) organic farm, which means that it is audited by a third-party to ensure the chickens are being raised using GAP welfare standards. These protesters illegally entered the property of this farm family, caused physical violence to the farmer, put the chickens at risk by traumatizing them and introduced disease to the thousands of chickens inside the houses by not following proper bio security. With any flock of chickens there is always some small amount of mortality. Our investigation on the farm so far has shown that the chickens were being cared for properly with plenty of food and water.”