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Protecting Perdue's chickens

Outrage. That's what I felt when I saw recent footage of horrific animal abuse at a Perdue chicken farm, filmed undercover by the organization Mercy For Animals. Chickens were stomped to death, picked up and thrown by their fragile necks and shoved into trucks to be sent to slaughter.

The film is difficult to watch — but anyone who eats chicken from industrialized farms needs to. What's shown on the video isn't an anomaly. This is business as usual at chicken farms across the country. Forced to live in dark, filthy sheds their entire short lives, these chickens never see the light of day. And they suffer leg deformities and organ failure from the weight of their bodies because they're bred to grow unnaturally fast. To say these conditions are inhumane is an understatement.

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As a resident of Salisbury, home of Perdue headquarters, I know better than most how dirty the business of chicken farming can be. A Perdue processing plant is located in our downtown, next to the Wicomico River. This plant and the farms surrounding us that supply Perdue and other poultry companies aren't merely responsible for animal cruelty. There are environmental concerns with this industry and its impact on our air, water and soil. The chicken business rules here on the Eastern Shore, therefore little thought is given to the animals raised and slaughtered — or to the environment or people living nearby.

The same is true in agriculture-heavy North Carolina, where the undercover investigation took place on a Perdue supplier farm. There, a so-called "ag-gag" law just went into effect on January 1. This law — like similar laws that have passed in other states — allows employers to sue whistleblowing employees for taking photos or videos on their property and then using the images to breach a "duty of loyalty" to the employer.

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This means it is now illegal to film animal abuse or environmental infractions on factory farms or killing floors. Mercy For Animals summed it up perfectly: "Clearly, North Carolina lawmakers don't want to stop criminal animal cruelty; they just want to stop people from finding out about it."

In the case of the recent investigation, which led to the arrest of a poultry worker, Perdue seems to be diverging from the meat industry's standard of secrecy and deception. The company voiced its concern about the disturbing footage, and it even applauded Mercy For Animals "for uncovering clear animal abuse by an individual on a farm raising [Perdue] chickens." Perdue also created a new position within the company, which it calls the Chief Animal Welfare Officer and Farm Family Advocate, acknowledging a need to improve its "oversight, training and practices around day-to-day care of our animals" and pledging to "report on the process and our progress" going forward.

It remains to be seen, however, whether Perdue will live up to its promises. So far, the company has made no obvious changes to the way its chickens are raised and killed. Issuing press statements and creating new positions may help the company's image, but these actions do nothing for the animals still suffering on Perdue farms.

Perdue should, at the very least, make sure its animals are treated better than they are now. It can change slaughter methods so the birds are killed less painfully. It can require its contractors to provide better living conditions for birds, ones that are cleaner with more room and without abuse. It can change breeding practices so birds don't succumb to health problems related to rapid growth. It could even install its own cameras on the walls of its farms and slaughterhouses to create a new standard of transparency in the meat industry.

Chickens destined for Perdue packages suffer from the beginning to the end of their shortened lives, despite the fact that they are just as sensitive and intelligent as our dogs and cats. Perdue can do better, and we should expect it.

Jane Langrall Robinson is a middle-school teacher and animal advocate in Salisbury, Md.; her email is jrobinson614@gmail.com.

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