The short lives of chickens raised by Perdue Foods will improve under what animal-rights activists called unprecedented animal welfare reforms announced Monday by the Salisbury-based poultry producer.
The company plans sweeping changes in how it breeds, raises and slaughters its chickens as consumers demand to know more about their food sources and animal-rights activists have stepped up efforts to uncover abuses in the poultry industry.
Perdue, the nation's fourth-largest poultry producer, and its contract farmers will stop raising chickens in crammed, windowless sheds, and instead install windows and increase space to encourage resting, playing and other natural behaviors, the company said.
The privately held company also will study doing away with genetic modification that creates fast-growing but injury-prone birds. And it plans to install "stunning" systems that render the birds unconscious before they're unloaded at processing plants.
Perdue said it has been working to improve the welfare of its poultry for years, but it began working with several animal-rights organizations after activists released a video in December from one of its contract farms in North Carolina showing a worker crushing a chicken with his boot and throwing another against a wall.
Perdue says its four-part plan is the most comprehensive in the poultry industry, one intended to reshape the culture of animal care among its more than 2,000 contract growers and thousands of employees. It will affect about 700 million animals.
"It's really a recommitment of animal care," Chairman Jim Perdue said in a Monday conference call. "Our consumers today ... want transparency. They want to know a lot about what we do, and especially find a lot of interest in how we raise our chickens. ... We expect people to hold us accountable."
Perdue said the company's thinking about animal care has shifted from simply providing food, water and shelter as it has learned about organic chicken farming.
The measures come on the heels of Perdue's announcement in February that it plans to use birds raised without antibiotics for all of its prepared chicken products, such as chicken nuggets, as well as a line of food-service turkey items. The company had been moving away from drugging animals to keep them healthy and encourage faster growth for several years.
The transition was expected to be completed last month. Perdue already was raising about two-thirds of its chickens without antibiotics and about half of its turkeys.
The latest measures represent a turnaround in the company's willingness to address concerns regarding the treatment of chickens, said Josh Balk, senior food policy director of the Humane Society of the United States.
"None of the company's competitors have gone this far at all yet," he said, "so this certainly puts Perdue at the top of its industry regarding beginning to address the most serious issues."
Some Perdue growers already have put some of the ideas into use, Balk said, but "consumers and the major buyers of Perdue products should hold them to this commitment to make sure they follow through with it."
The company based its model in part on the "five freedoms," an internationally recognized standard for animal husbandry used by farmers in the United Kingdom as well as in organic chicken farming, said Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue's senior vice president of food safety, quality and live production. The standard was introduced to Perdue through an acquisition about five years ago.
Chickens raised through organic methods tend to be twice as active as those in regular production.
Perdue hopes to produce healthier chickens and double their activity by exposing them to natural sunlight, adding herbs and probiotics to feed, offering them more space and opportunities to explore, Stewart-Brown said. Additions to chicken houses such as perches and bales of straw can encourage natural behaviors that promote curiousity and activity, he said.
"These animal-husbandry techniques are very transferable to our business," Stewart-Brown said.
The company committed to installing windows in 200 of its contract farmers' chicken houses, likely by the end of the year. Perdue has 4,500 chicken houses, including 500 that already have windows. Through additional window installations, Perdue hopes to see its measure of chicken activity double over three years.
Georgie Cartanza, who has contracted with Purdue for a decade, already has seen benefits since installing windows on her poultry farm in Camden, Del., where she raises 39,000 chickens in each of her four chicken houses. The windows replaced a solid side wall and artificial light inside, she said.
"This is one of the best things I've ever seen in a long time," Cartanza said. "I'm happier to be in there. The house is much brighter and more comfortable, and the birds like it. You can see a change in their bird activity, and they have a more natural sense of sunrise and sunset."
She added that enrichments "like toys for the chickens, ramps the chickens can hop up and jump off ... I believe this is a better way to raise chickens."
In an interview Monday, Stewart-Brown, said the company has been visiting and meeting with its farmers to promote planned changes. Most have been enthusiastic, though some had concerns about how much of the costs they'd be expected to shoulder.
"Historically, whenever we have innovations that we think are better for chickens ... we pay a percentage and they pay a percentage, and we'll finance it," Perdue said in an interview. "This initiative is something we're interested in making happen. ... The farmers are not going to be out any money."
He did not disclose anticipated costs of the reforms, which also include installing "controlled atmosphere stunning" systems in turkey and chicken plants. Perdue already has installed one in its lone turkey plant and plans to put another in a chicken plant by next year. After testing those systems, the company plans to add similar systems in the remaining nine plants.
The company invited animal-rights activists from the Humane Society and Los Angeles-based Mercy for Animals to help craft its plan after activists criticized the company for its animal welfare practices. After Mercy for Animals released the December video, North Carolina authorities charged the workers with four felony counts of animal cruelty. The video, captured during an undercover investigation, also showed birds so large they could not support their own weight.
At the time, Perdue officials called the treatment "unacceptable" and said the company works to ensure the poultry comes from farms that raise birds in "a healthy environment."
Jaya Bhumitra, director of corporate outreach for Mercy for Animals, who worked with Perdue officials on developing the plan, called it 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."
She said she hoped it would spur rival poultry producers to adopt similar policies.
"It's hit a tipping point," Bhumitra said. "Consumers today are more socially conscious than ever before."