Photograph by Stephanie Klein-Davis, The Roanoake Times, Associated Press
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Perdue broilers could see a whole lot more sunlight under new guidelines the company is proposing today on improved animal welfare standards. Here, Robert Mills of Callands, Virginia, walks through his chicken house.

Photograph by Stephanie Klein-Davis, The Roanoake Times, Associated Press

Why Perdue Will Grow Happier (and Maybe Healthier) Chickens

The nation's fourth-largest poultry producer is poised to lead the way in remaking American animal welfare practices.

Can a company lead the way back to raising chickens more naturally and still remain profitable? A major American chicken producer is about to find out.

Perdue Farms Inc., the fourth-largest poultry producer in the United States, shook the chicken industry two years ago by becoming the first company to renounce routine antibiotic use. It is likely to have the same effect today: It will announce a comprehensive animal-welfare plan—the first among large producers—that will change how its chickens are bred, raised, and killed.

In a sign of how far Perdue has come, three long-standing critics are backing the company: the animal-welfare organizations Compassion in World Farming, Mercy for Animals, and the Humane Society of the United States.

Perdue is unveiling its welfare plan at an event in New York City Monday morning. It contains four significant changes, which Perdue leadership explained in advance to The Plate: new standards for how birds are raised and slaughtered; an increased voice for its contract farmers; a transparency initiative that includes annual publishing of metrics; and creation of an “animal care culture” that includes new executive positions.

“We’re talking about this as going back to the farm, to the way we used to do things,” Jim Perdue, Perdue Foods’ chairman, tells The Plate. “Maybe they were a little smarter back then than we thought they were.”

To consumers, the most dramatic change is likely to be how Perdue raises its broilers. Conventional production is notorious for raising chickens on the floors of solid-walled sheds with artificial light cycles that allow only about four hours of darkness each day. The company is committing to giving its broilers natural light, by installing windows in its barns; to allowing a more normal “daytime,” by increasing lights-off periods from four to six hours; and to exercise, by installing “enrichments” such as straw bales and perches and allowing access to the outdoors.

Those changes come as the company is also committing to converting its processing plants to using a system to gas birds into unconsciousness before they are shackled upside-down and sent along the slaughter line. That method, known as “controlled atmosphere” stunning or killing, is used widely in Europe but in the United States only by companies smaller than Perdue, such as Mary’s Free Range Chickens and Bell & Evans. . The current industry standard is to send birds, still conscious and often struggling, into an electrified water bath that shocks them into immobility before their throats are slit.

The plan also includes reevaluating the fast-growth genetics—average age at slaughter is about 42 days—that leave chickens overbalanced by their breast muscles and unable, or in too much pain, to walk.

Bruce Stewart-Brown, a veterinarian who is Perdue’s senior vice president of food safety, quality and live operations, describes the company’s changed approach to its birds as being based on the “five freedoms,” rules for animal welfare that were developed in Europe in the 1960s. They include freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain and injury, and fear and distress; and freedom to express normal species behavior.

“We feel the goal is to ask chickens what they want, and move to something that provides them with that, as well as meeting their basic needs,” he tells The Plate.

The new animal-care commitment has the potential to be influential in the industry. When Perdue announced in 2014 that it was converting its operations to “no antibiotics ever”—and disclosed that it was already most of the way to that goal—other major poultry producers such as Tyson soon followed its lead.

Stewart-Brown says the experience of relinquishing antibiotics (except in the case of treating sick birds) fueled the aspects of the new animal-care plan in which the company commits to improving relationships with its farmers. Industry-wide, broiler farmers raise the birds under an arrangement in which the animals remain under company ownership and payment is determined under a proprietary algorithm—a scheme that has been controversial, and under political scrutiny, for years.

Including Farmers, Activists in the Conversation

“‘No Antibiotics Ever’ started for us in 2002, and as we were working through it, we realized that we’d not been close enough to farmers,” he tells The Plate. “If you hand a farmer a program and say just, ‘These are the five things we want you to do,’ and you don't ask them to weigh in, or explain to them what you're trying to get done, then you're stuck.”

Though the company did not say so, the voices of farmers who have worked for Perdue probably played a role in the shaping of the initiative being announced Monday. In 2014, a North Carolina contract grower named Craig Watts who was uncomfortable with the welfare of the chickens he was raising took the extraordinary step of opening his barns to Compassion in World Farming and collaborating in a video that went viral, and subsequently a documentary. (After legal exchanges, Watts exited his Perdue contract earlier this year.)

Last year, on another farm, Mercy for Animals covertly taped animal abuse. And in 2010 and 2013, the Humane Society sued Perdue in federal court in two states over its claim that its birds are “humanely raised,” suits that were settled in 2014 with the company removing that language from its labels.

Those activist actions make it noteworthy that all three organizations back the plan being announced Monday, to the point that they allowed the company to append their comments to its press release.

“We have gone from a situation of opposing each other over a lawsuit, to working together on what is certainly a precedent-setting policy that will be significant for the broiler industry,” Josh Balk, senior food policy director for the Humane Society, tells The Plate. Since then, he says, “we have met with them numerous times… and they have been very thoughtful. It has been a very honest and open dialogue.”

Leah Garces, the U.S. director for Compassion in World Farming, says she was surprised how open the company was to discussing the welfare of the almost 700 million chickens it raises and sells each year.

“Those first conversations after releasing a controversial video around a company are very difficult,” she admits. “But what we found was we had far more in common than I realized.”

She adds: “We said to them, there are things you need to do, you and the whole industry. The breed of bird you are using has to go. You can't breed a bird that collapses under her own weight, and you can’t breed a bird where the management solution is cull (kill) birds. You need to breed birds that don’t need to be culled in the first place.”

A Natural Outgrowth of Elimating Routine Antibiotics?

The animal-welfare organizations pointed out that though the Perdue plan is welcome, it comes with a footnote: For most of its initiatives, the company has not disclosed a timeline. It is volunteering to pay for installation of windows in its growers’ barns, but in 2016, only 200 of 6,000 barns will get them. Only one plant has the expensive gas-stunning system—which requires new crates and retrofitted trucks—installed, and according to Perdue only one more will gain it by the end of 2017.

Despite the lack of benchmarks, the activists said the Perdue initiatives are a laudable attempt to get out in front of an evolution in the United States industry. (Europe’s industry by contrast has been far ahead.),

“Perdue led the way on antibiotics, and once you do away with antibiotics, it is inescapable that you have to improve the conditions of raising if you are going to continue to stay in business,” Garces says. “Perdue is coming to that conclusion faster than any other company has.”