Some chickens at Perdue will soon be living a better life on the farm.
Perdue, the fourth-largest poultry producer in the country, announced this week that it would overhaul a portion of its chicken houses to give the animals more space and sunlight.
The company plans to install windows in sheds, increase the space in which chickens can roam and add perches and hay bales to boost their physical activity.
It's a move that signifies a shift in consumer demand -- the expectation that the food they buy is produced humanely -- is creating tangible results at the producer level. Chickens are typically stuffed by the thousands in sheds that don't get sunlight, and they are raised to grow rapidly and to large sizes, due to the controversial use of growth hormones and other methods.
For now, the company is adding windows to just 200 chicken sheds by the end of the year. Five hundred of Perdue's total of 4,500 houses already have windows. The company will determine later whether to retrofit all its chicken houses and some are cautioning against heaping praise on Perdue prematurely.
“This is an indication that the status quo is no longer defensible, and that the industry is starting to make moves, but it's doing so carefully and slowly,” said Gene Bauer, president and co-founder of the farm animal advocacy nonprofit Farm Sanctuary. “Sunlight is better than no sunlight, and hopefully there will be cleaner housing, but it likely will still be overcrowded. It will allow birds to suffer less, but they're still suffering.”
As a major player in the poultry industry, Perdue must also hold itself accountable for its commitments, animal activist groups say. Concrete deadlines about when goals are achieved, in addition to third-party audits of farm conditions, would significantly help improve consumers' trust in the company.
“This policy is not perfect, and there's a long way to go,” said Josh Balk, senior food policy director at the Humane Society of the United States, which is working with Perdue to establish progress timelines. “In the coming months, Perdue should demonstrate that they're serious about this policy. Consumers should know how long this is going to take.”
Growing public pressure around animal welfare pushed Perdue to review the way it's been doing business. The company says it will release yearly reports on the changes and work with its farmers to ensure that better practices are put in place.
“It's important to be transparent as we move through this,” said Bruce Stewart-Brown, who oversees food safety and quality at Perdue. “People are more interested in the aspect of raising animals, and we want to be open and talk about it. We're anxious to move in this direction.”
In an effort to be more humane, Perdue will also begin stunning the chickens so that the animals are unconscious before slaughter. The company spoke with various organizations that have been critical of its animal welfare policies as it prepared this week's announcement, and some groups were optimistic that the move could trigger other poultry producers to adopt similar practices.
While this marks a significant pivot in the poultry supply chain, the past year has already seen numerous retailers commit to promoting better conditions for chickens. Major fast-food chains including McDonald's, Starbucks and Panera, as well as supermarkets like Trader Joe's and Costco, are transitioning to selling only cage-free eggs in response to consumer demand.
“Consumers now care more than ever before about the treatment of farm animals,” Balk said. “It's going to be difficult for competitors to say they can't do this.”