Two Costco shareholders have launched a lawsuit against the company for animal cruelty after reports found that the membership-only grocery has been mistreating its chickens in its $450 million poultry processing plant in Freemont, Nebraska.
The lawsuit, filed by shareholders Krystil Smith and Tyler Lobdell at a Seattle court in June, claims “Costco illegally neglects and abandons its chickens,” which, in turn, broke its fiduciary duties. It also mentions that Costco executives had "consciously disregarded clear signs of Costco's ongoing mistreatment of chickens."
Costco opened its $450 million Nebraska poultry processing plant in 2019. As part of the plan, the company hired farmers around the area to raise chickens and deliver them to the plant, where they are prepared to be sold as the $4.99 Kirkland Signature rotisserie chickens.
Known for their taste and low price, Costco, which also has an outlet in China, has been selling Kirkland Signature rotisserie chickens since 2009. The member-only grocery reportedly sold 106 million chickens last year at a loss to entice potential members and draw in more foot traffic.
In 2021, an undercover video filmed by Mercy for Animals revealed the inhumane conditions the chickens were housed in, such as tens of thousands of broilers being cramped in small warehouses where they live in their own filth for weeks.
The video exposé led The New York Times to publish an opinion piece in February 2021, titled “The Ugly Secrets Behind the Costco Chicken,” about the chickens’ living conditions, which the company defended in a statement.
“Costco Wholesale is committed to the welfare of animals in its supply chains,” the company wrote. “Although these chickens [broilers] have a life cycle of less than 45 days, their welfare is as important as that of animals that have longer life cycles.”
The lawsuit and the Mercy for Animals exposé claim that Costco had intentionally bred the broilers unnaturally fast and large so that they could no longer stand on their own. It also claimed that the "disabled birds slowly die from hunger, injury and illness."
“If Costco continues its illegal mistreatment of chickens, it risks undermining its long-running and successful traffic-generation strategy,” the lawsuit says. “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.”
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Speaking to The Washington Post, Smith, who has been a vegan for 15 years and studied animal law, said she felt “complicit” in the abuse after watching the Mercy for Animals video. She also explained that she doesn’t have any special affinity for animals, “But I don’t think you need to have a special affinity for anything to not harm them, or certainly to defend the law.”
Although the Mercy for Animals investigation did not specifically name the complex in Fremont, the video was filmed at one of the hundreds of farms Costco contracted for its broilers. The lawsuit notes that the grocery chain and Lincoln Premium Poultry recruited 120 farmers to raise as many as 190,000 broilers every six weeks.
“Most of the individuals whom Costco contracted to raise chickens had never raised chickens before they started working with Costco,” the lawsuit claims. “As a result, Costco is responsible for training these growers on how to raise chickens and how to care for animals, and for setting the animal welfare standards that these growers follow.”
Feature image via Mercy for Animals