Perdue Farms Inc., the country’s fourth largest chicken producer, said during a press conference Monday it is phasing in plans to help make its birds more active in hopes of making them healthier and happier, and it’s considering using slower growing birds — moves that go contrary to current mainstream farming practices in the United States.
Animal welfare is becoming of growing importance to many Americans. A Gallup poll conducted last year found that a majority of American's, 57 percent, are somewhat or very concerned about the welfare of animals raised for food.
Perdue's moves include adding windows to the housing where the chickens are kept and installing “enhancements,” such as ramps for the birds to climb and jump off of, hay bales, and boxes for them to jump in and run around.
The company said those changes are based on the Five Freedoms, an animal treatment approach that’s widely accepted in Europe and endorsed by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The Five Freedoms are:
1) Freedom from hunger and thirst
2) Freedom from discomfort
3) Freedom from pain, injury or disease
4) Freedom to express normal behavior, and
5) Freedom from fear and distress
Tyson Foods Inc., the country’s largest poultry supplier, also “urge[s] all farmers to strive toward” the Five Freedoms, according to its web site.
Perdue ran afoul of the Humane Society of the United States in 2014, when the animal welfare organization sued the chicken company and, as a result, Perdue stopped using the phrase “humanely raised” on the packages of its Harvestland brand, according to The New York Times.
Poultry farmer Georgie Cartanza, who has raised chickens for Perdue for 10 years and installed the windows and enhancements a year-and-a-half ago, said the windows make the barns a nicer place for her to work, and the birds seem to like it as well.
“The birds definitely play more, and I definitely think it indicates that they’re much more content,” she said.
Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue’s senior vice president of food safety, quality and live production, said that, to his surprise, the increased activity hasn’t translated into the need for more feed.
“I think the end result is, by birds being more active, they’re healthier. They’re stronger,” he said.
“It’s just as efficient as our other production. We were surprised by that, frankly, and really enthused about it. I think it comes from the fact of the bird’s healthiness, and some of that is making up for the increased activity.”
Perdue also said it was switching its slaughter facilities away from electrical stunning to controlled atmosphere stunning, a practice preferred by animal welfare organizations.
Additionally, Stewart-Brown said they were experimenting with giving chickens more space to move around in, to determine optimal space for birds to get more exercise, and they were also planning tests of slower growing birds.
In a report released today by Perdue called Commitments to Animal Care, 2016 and Beyond, it said its goal was to double the rate of activity by chickens in the next three years.
“These modifications will be specifically designed to address broiler chicken growth rates that cause discomfort to birds, and could include breeds of birds that grow slower or more uniformly.”
In the press conference, Stewart-Brown also said the more active chickens might also taste different.
Perdue bought beef-and-pork producer Coleman Natural Foods in 2011 and Niman Ranch last year, and Stewart-Brown said more active hogs clearly produced redder meat. He added that, based on what the company was learning from that production, as well as the company’s growing production of organic chicken — now 8 percent of the total — they might also give their mainstream chickens access to outdoors.
Although that, and using slower growing birds, might add to costs, he indicated that consumers might be receptive to that.
“Sometimes if it’s the right thing to do, and it’s right for the consumer, and they feel better about serving it to their family, that could be covered,” he said, adding that previous changes in Perdue’s practices, such as phasing out routine antibiotic use, turned out not to be appreciably more expensive.
In its report, Perdue said 12 percent of its chickens currently have access to outdoor pasture and to daylight via windows. It said it was mandating windows in all new chicken house construction and that would install windows in 200 existing poultry houses. It said it would compare the health and activity of those birds to those of other houses, and would establish annual targets for retrofitting the houses if the windows do, indeed encourage the chickens to move more.
Stewart-Brown said the moves toward slower growing birds was contrary to prevailing trends in mainstream chicken production, but it might turn out to be the right way to go. “Maybe we want to go back to the way my grandfather did it in 1920, when chickens were in the yard,” he said.
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