Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Caged chickens lay eggs in a chicken house built decades ago at Hilliker Egg Ranch, in November 2014, in Lakeside, Calif.

Perdue promises a more humane life for chickens

Perdue Foods plans to implement more humane practices to raise and slaughter its chickens. The plan came after meeting with concerned animal rights activists.

The living conditions of the 700 million chickens raised by Perdue Foods are expected to improve now that America’s fourth largest chicken producer has collaborated with leaders of animal advocate organizations to develop a series of animal welfare reforms.

The move comes amid a broad sea-change among American consumers regarding the ethical treatment of animals, both as food and as entertainment. From Perdue and McDonalds to SeaWorld Entertainment and the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, companies are rethinking the way they treat the animals in their care in response to consumer pressure to take a more compassionate approach.

Perdue Foods laid out plans for a more humane way to raise and slaughter its chickens on Monday, becoming the first major American company to pledge to abandon the industry’s standard method for killing birds. Rather than shackling birds and hanging them upside down – which often causes bruising and broken bones – before stunning and killing them, Perdue will kill birds with gases using a procedure called controlled-atmosphere stunning.

"It's a dramatically less cruel way to kill these animals," Josh Balk, senior food policy director at the Humane Society, told NPR.

In December, Mercy for Animals, a nonprofit organization that advocates on behalf of farmed animals, released a video of an undercover investigation into a contractor with Perdue Farms showing chickens that were too overweight to walk and workers abusing the animals, which later resulted in felony charges.

These problems aren’t unique to Perdue – studies have found as many as 15 to 30 percent of chickens grown for their meat have trouble walking because of their unnatural size. But Perdue promised to take action.

Perdue thanked Mercy for Animals at the time for uncovering the abuse and vowed to improve oversight of the daily care of the animals, saying “Mercy For Animals and Perdue share the goals of preventing animal abuse and of improving poultry care,” as CBS reported.

The company followed up with the Los Angeles-based nonprofit, inviting animal-rights activists from both Mercy for Animals and the Humane Society to develop the new standards aimed at not only a painless death for it chickens, but more active, healthy lives for them as well.

After consulting with the activists and farmers, Perdue set a goal of doubling the rate of its chickens’ activity in the next three years, which should help to prevent the birds from growing to such unnaturally large sizes. Perdue pledged to outfit 200 poultry houses with windows by the end of the year and follow through with its other 4,000 houses that are still artificially lit if the windows prove effective in increasing chicken activity. Other changes include adding perches and bales of straw to chicken enclosures and expanding the space chickens have to roam, as The Baltimore Sun reported.

Jaya Bhumitra, director of corporate outreach for Mercy for Animals, who worked with Perdue officials on developing the plan, told The Baltimore Sun it was a "precedent-setting commitment to improve animal welfare. We're heartened that Perdue not only took notice but also action after illegal animal cruelty was discovered in its supply chain."

The improvements won’t be immediate, and the company hasn’t committed to a firm timeline. Perdue promised to implement controlled-atmosphere stunning in a second facility, in addition to its turkey plant where it’s already used, only by the end of 2017, followed by gradual implementation in its nine other plants.

Perdue already stepped out ahead of the industry in terms of animal rights with its 2015 announcement that more than half of its chickens can be labelled “no antibiotics ever,” while competitors like Tyson Foods and Foster Farms working to eliminate the use of antibiotics were still far behind that benchmark.

The commercial pressures to embrace more humane practices are getting stronger. Some 47 percent of consumers say it’s very important that companies “avoid inhumane treatment of animals,” up six percentage points from 2013.

Wendy’s, Chipotle, Burger King, and Subway are among companies that give purchasing preference to chicken suppliers that switch to controlled-atmosphere stunning, and KFC Canada has committed to buy from them exclusively.

Jim Perdue, chairman of Perdue Farms, told NPR that socially-conscious customers were a driving force behind the change. Especially Millennials "want to make sure that animals are raised in as caring a way as possible. With the least stress, the least discomfort," he said.

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