Perdue recently made a big announcement about new animal welfare standards, but the question is whether the news is as good for the animal welfare movement as it seems.
On July 14, Perdue, America’s leading producer of organic chicken and the fourth largest poultry company, endorsed the new, stricter USDA organic proposal to establish more indoor and outdoor space for broiler chickens, ensure outdoor access includes contact with soil (not just concrete) and require husbandry practices that promote natural behavior. The new standards are called “Commitments to Animal Care: 2016 and Beyond.”
“That’s a very important action they took,” says Josh Balk, senior food policy director for Humane Society. “When you look at organic standards, virtually every major agri-business has come out against it.”
This latest announcement comes right on the heels of what HSUS has dubbed a “precedent-setting” animal welfare policy from poultry company. The animal protection organization worked with Perdue to set new animal welfare reforms, which includes converting slaughterhouses from shackling live animals to less cruel Controlled Atmosphere Stunning, installing windows into chicken houses and adding enrichments (i.e. perches and hay). Furthermore, the company claims it will study new space criteria and test slower-growing birds, rather than the incredibly large-breasted franken-chickens that are commonplace, today.
The Humane Society of the United States is calling it a major success, but other animal welfare groups are skeptical that the praise is coming too soon and that the announcements will only confuse consumers.
So, what do these announcements really mean? Let’s break it down.
Start with the slaughter method: the most important aspect of its new policy. The current live shackling process is stressful and often incredibly painful for the animals. Chicken are trucked off from factory farms to industrial ‘processing facilities,’ dumped onto conveyor belts, their legs shackled by workers, all while fully conscious. They’re dunked into an electrocution bath, intended to render them unconscious, so they won’t move when they reach the neck-slicer. From there, they’re scalded in another bath, then defeathered. It’s an incredibly fast process. So, some chickens are not knocked out by the first bath, meaning they’re necks can be sliced while fully alert. If a bird misses the blade, it’s scalded to death — like a really bad night terror.
Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (CAS), Perdue’s new chosen slaughter method, has been recognized by scientists and advocates as a more humane process. An entire cage is put into a metal chamber. Carbon dioxide is introduced at different stages to gently knock out the chickens. The rest of the process is the same, but the birds are unconscious. “That’s the key,” says Balk. “It’s a major improvement.”
One of Perdue’s 11 slaughterhouses uses CAS. The goal is to have the next CAS facility up and running by the end of 2017.
Living Conditions: Better Sheds
During the course of the birds’ six-week lives, they spend all their time in barren sheds lit by fluorescent for 20-hours a day. Because of the bright lights, the birds have trouble sleeping, which negatively affects their already stressed out immune systems. (Industry standard is two hours of darkness per day.)
They have no access to natural sunlight, they cannot get away from the flock, they have no means to occupy themselves and, as they grow, the ‘broilers’ get less and less space, making it difficult for their big breasted bodies to move.
“Right now there are no enrichments in these sheds,” says Balk. “They’re going to put perches and hay bales, so the chickens can engage in natural behaviors.”
On pastures, chickens regularly scratch the ground, looking for bugs. When individual birds want to get away from the flock, they perch. Like most diurnal animals, they enjoy basking in the sun.
By the end of 2016, Perdue has vowed to install windows into 200 existing poultry houses, using those houses to study bird health and activity in comparison to enclosed facilities. If the windows are deemed effective in increasing bird activity — one of Perdue’s stated goals — the company claims it will establish timelines for retrofitting openings into its 5,000 houses. Windows are also mandated for all new construction according to the guidelines. “It is something that is very much needed and it’s going to make the lives of these animals better,” says Balk.
Perdue says it is already testing slower-growing chickens, studying new space criteria based on bird health and evaluating a six-hour minimum ‘lights off’ resting period. “They’re [Perdue] committed to testing, they haven’t committed to doing.,” says Balk. “Even the fact they’re testing is better than competitors.”
Although Balk and his colleagues at HSUS view incremental improvements as cause for celebration, others aren’t willing to light up the cigars just yet.
“Our biggest challenge with announcements like this and so-called improvements is that it gives consumers a false sense of security,” says Andrew Gunther program director Animal Welfare Approved (AWA).
According to Gunther, these changes sound good on paper, but the chickens don’t realize their lives are any better. With the current changes, the birds are still not guaranteed space or the ability to peck the ground, stretch, self-isolate. Gunther doubts these changes will positively affect environmental conditions around farmland or farm workers. “Animal welfare is one tenant of a broken system, and to be giving accolades to an anthromoprohic improvement for the animals whilst ignoring the needs of human animals is incredibly shortsighted,” says Gunther. “Social justice is just as important.”
If Gunther sounds touchy about the human element of factory farms, and Perdue in particular, it’s because he’s had first-hand experience working with the company’s sub-contractors.
Carole Morrison, who appeared in Food Inc., transitioned from a Perdue contractor to an AWA-certified egg farmer with Gunther’s help. She believes, given Perdues foray into the organic market, the company’s goal is more about bottom line than giving the animals better lives. “I would love to believe that Perdue has had a vision, an epiphany or something, but I’m not buying it,” says Morrison. “They found out that there’s money to be made in the organic market…it’s not just a little niche hippy farmer thing anymore, it’s a business.”
Even so, Morrison thinks some of the changes are positive. She approves the switch to CAS slaughterhouses and she is glad that windows will be installed — although, she worries the birds may pile on top of each other and, possibly suffocate, for access to sun.
Perdue claims that piling hasn’t proved to be an issue on the organic farms it already operates, and Julie DeYoung, Perdue Farms media relations, admits the company has made some of the changes due to customer demand and negative publicity. DeYoung says the company has learned important animal welfare and farmer relations lessons from buying organic chicken company Coleman Natural Foods and pasture-based Niman Ranch. Perdue is, she says, trying to regain public confidence: “It’s something we’re inviting people to watch, and we know that we earn trust every day. Allowing people to see what we’re doing is the only way we’ll be able to have that trust.”
While the new criteria and studies are far from perfect, it’s still a leap forward for the industry to admit it can improve, whether that admission is coming from consumer trends or humane concerns.
“When Perdue made the announcement, it eliminated the excuse that any other poultry company can’t make these changes,” says Balk. “I don’t know if the industry is going to fight to keep the status quo or if buyers will have to demand. Either way, change is coming.”
Sara Ventiera is a roaming eater and traveler who looks for amusing stories across the United States. She works from New York, Los Angeles and various places in between. Her work has appeared in theVillage Voice, New York Daily News, Zagat, FoodNetwork.comand more.
Header photo by Stuart Richards CC BY-ND and Perdue press conference photo by Maryland GovPics CC BY