Leaders at Salisbury-based Perdue Farms said they have made progress in their effort to improve the lives of their birds.
Perdue announced plans a year ago to change how it breeds, raises and slaughters its chickens and released the first annual report about it Monday.
Jim Perdue, company chairman, and Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president of food safety, quality, and live operations, said the changes would eventually affect more than 1,500 contract farmers and 5,000 chicken houses.
"This is a big change for our company as well as the industry," Perdue said in an interview ahead of the report's release. "Getting everyone aligned is the big challenge. From that aspect, I think things are going well as far as people understanding what we want to look like."
And while the officials said they were pleased with the launch, they were still working out some issues, such as how to measure improvements in some cases. For example, they said there is not an established way to measure chicken activity, bolstered by more and better space and light.
Perdue said it had been working for years to improve the lives of its chickens. This was largely a result of consumer demand, but efforts accelerated after animal-rights activists released a video in 2015 from a contract farm in North Carolina that showed such shoddy treatment of birds that authorities filed animal cruelty charges against workers.
Perdue said that's when it brought animal-rights groups to the table, as well as academics and farmers. The final effort, the report said, was to determine more ways to meet the birds' wants and not just their basic needs for food, water and shelter.
Measures included adding windows to chicken houses and space — including some outdoor space — so chickens could rest, play and act more naturally. It also included scrapping pre-emptive antibiotics and altering breeding methods that promoted faster growth but also injury. The company also said it would install stunning systems so birds would be unconscious before they arrive at processing plants to minimize stress.
The report shows there was some progress in each area. The company also added more tours of facilities to boost transparency.
For farmers, the company launched programs to help offset costs for changes, which officials said drove away some farmers but helped them secure others.
Officials plan to study the effects of each upgrade, continue making changes and publicly report progress each year.
The efforts drew praise from the animal-rights activists, who said the efforts were above those of other large producers.
"Major food companies are increasingly committing to treating chickens in their supply chains better," said Josh Balk, vice president of Farm Animal Protection at the Humane Society of the United States. "Perdue, with this announcement, becomes the largest poultry producer to ensure that this demand will be met. We applaud Perdue for focusing its improvements on the core areas of concern within the poultry industry and this holistic approach demonstrates all that's possible in creating better lives for billions of chickens."