Perdue Foods announces new animal welfare policy

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, June 27, 2016 - Perdue Foods, one of the largest poultry companies in the U.S., has announced an expansive new animal welfare policy that is receiving high marks from advocacy groups.

Company Chairman Jim Perdue announced the plan today in a release. The four-part plan will lead to “changing how we raise chickens,” Perdue said, pointing to changes that will alter everything from the birds' access to daylight to the company's relationship with its contract growers.

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“Poultry production as a whole has made great progress in keeping chickens healthy; however, we can improve by implementing policies that go beyond meeting chickens' basic needs,” said Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue's senior vice president of food safety, quality and live production. “We want to create an environment where chickens can express normal behaviors.” He also noted that producers “responded very positively to these improved husbandry methods.”

The first of the four goals describes the measuring stick that Perdue will use to chart its progress by using the Five Freedoms, a set of animal welfare principles originally developed in the U.K. in the 1960s. Each of the Five Freedoms - freedom from hunger and thirst; from discomfort; from pain, injury or disease; from fear and distress; and freedom to express normal behavior - has underlying language saying where the Salisbury, Maryland-based company currently stands on the matter and where it wants to head.

For instance, the freedom from discomfort goals include implementation of new space criteria, extending the mandatory “lights-off” resting period, and other studies to better address animal comfort and enrichment. The plan also calls for gradual implementation of Controlled Atmosphere Stunning - processing for slaughter using gas rather than a paralysis induced by a small electric shock - to a second Perdue plant by the end of 2017 and to more facilities going forward. CAS is currently used at one Perdue plant.

“From lessons learned from organic chicken houses, it's clear that there can be a general health benefit with increased activity - and that is a big focus of our plan,” Stewart-Brown said. He added that the company has a goal “to double the activity of our chickens in the next three years.” 

The plan also includes additional housing and worker monitoring components. By the end of the year, the company is pledging to install windows in 200 existing housing structures and mandate windows in all new construction of chicken houses. Perdue will also implement video monitoring of crews and transport vehicles with weekly spot checks and pay incentives “to further promote appropriate handling of live chickens.”

In the other three parts of the plan, Perdue pledges to do “a better job listening to farmers” and considering their well-being whenever requiring production changes, a higher level of transparency including annual animal care metrics, and a commitment to continuous improvement “to ensure the health and well-being of its birds through next-generation initiatives.”

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In Perdue's own release, the company included a link to reaction from animal welfare groups, producers and a retailer. Leah Garces, executive director with Compassion in World Farming, called the announcement “a momentous first step in the right direction” for the poultry industry. Josh Balk, senior director of food policy with the Humane Society of the United States, said the announcement is “precedent setting” and pointed to the shift to CAS as “a particularly important animal welfare improvement.”

But the industry isn't quite sold yet on the benefits of CAS over the status quo. In 2012, the American Association of Avian Pathologists issued a position paper saying that research “has not consistently demonstrated one commercially available stunning method to be superior to another” and that both low voltage stunning and CAS were “acceptable methods for stunning poultry.” Yvonne Visser Thaxton, director of the Center for Food Animal Wellbeing at the University of Arkansas, has also said that both CAS and electrical stunning can fulfill animal welfare requirements “when properly administered.”

According to WATT Global Media, Perdue is the ninth-largest poultry company in the world and third-largest in the U.S. with about 654 million birds slaughtered annually. Tyson Foods is the biggest poultry producer in the U.S. (2.310 billion annual slaughter), followed by Pilgrim's Pride (1.5 billion.)

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