Maryland-based Perdue Farms, one of the biggest brands in the production of poultry raised for meat, is making one of the most important announcements of any major producer in the field. Last summer, The HSUS – along with Compassion in World Farming and Mercy For Animals – worked with Perdue to commit the company to a series of reforms to address chronic animal welfare problems (a separate set of problems from the mistreatment of laying hens in the egg industry that we’re also campaigning to change). These policies address the inhumane way chickens are bred (to grow so large so fast that they suffer crippling and even fatal injuries), the cramped and barren facilities they spend their lives in, and the inhumane slaughter systems that dominate the poultry industry.
Within the world of poultry production, Perdue’s pledge to address these concerns was particularly significant, given that the company is the fourth largest in the field and slaughters 700 million birds a year (about eight percent of all production in the United States). It came not long after The HSUS launched its Nine Billion Lives campaign, calling on producers and retailers involved in the chicken business to shape up.
Today, we’re announcing step two in our collaborative discussions with Perdue. The company, now having seen 25 major food retailers agree to changes in their purchasing practices for chicken, has said it will commit to working with these and other stakeholders to honor these new animal welfare standards.
Meeting the demands of its customers may seem like an obvious pledge for any supply-oriented company. No company can survive if it frustrates its customers’ wishes. But in the world of Big Agriculture, that hasn’t always been the case. Many major producers have fought the public and the retail sector for years on animal welfare. For example, consumers were rightfully outraged for decades over the treatment of veal calves, expressing concern that these poor creatures were chained by their necks in tiny crates. Yet veal producers continued using that practice until The HSUS was able to apply sufficient pressure to the industry and secure a pledge from it to phase out the crates. But it took far too long – almost a quarter century.
From my vantage point, the announcement from Perdue today is as big and as important as a prior pledge related to pig production practices by Smithfield Foods – also a big brand in the world of animal agriculture.
In 2007, just two months after The HSUS led a successful ballot initiative in Arizona to ban the cage confinement of breeding sows, Smithfield, the world’s biggest pork producer, said that over the next decade it would convert all of its company-owned pig-producing facilities away from gestation crates to group housing.
Now, 10 years later, Smithfield is on target to complete that conversion this year. That assurance from the biggest producer in the field set us up for success with the nation’s biggest food retailers in our campaign to end the widespread use of gestation crates. A few years after Smithfield’s announcement, The HSUS had negotiated agreements with McDonald’s, Burger King, Kroger, and more than 100 other big brand names to shake up their supply chains and phase out their purchase of pork from operations that confine sows in gestation crates. We’ve also passed bans on gestation crates in about 10 states.
When producers fight these changes, it doesn’t halt reform, but it slows it. In particular, it complicates the path for retailers to implement their plans and honor their pledges.
When we announced our Nine Billion Lives campaign some months ago – to curb the most egregious practices in the industrial poultry production model – we and others in the animal movement came out strong by winning reforms from Burger King, Boston Market, Aramark, Subway, Jack in the Box, Compass Group, Panera Bread, and others. These companies have pledged to require their suppliers to transition to healthier breeds of birds, give birds more space to live, provide enrichments like perches and hay bales, and slaughter them in a less cruel manner using Controlled Atmosphere Stunning to render the birds unconscious prior to being shackled and killed.
These pledges are so important, but they won’t have full force until these companies know that they can secure enough chicken in order to meet the demand for meat for their customers.
Perdue’s pledge should give every company selling chicken the confidence that it will be able to meet any pledge it makes. And it also signals the same thing to other food retailers we’re now asking to hop on board with our campaign. “Consistent with our history of listening to our consumers and customers,” writes the company, “Perdue is committing to work side-by-side with these existing and future new customers to ensure that products from animals raised according to their committed standards will be available to meet their demand.”
With today’s commitment from Perdue, I see something much bigger than a routine announcement. Modest changes in the way broiler birds are raised are likely to have consequences for nine billion birds a year. In the work that The HSUS does to relieve animal suffering, there’s no category of animal use with as many lives at stake.
You’ll hear more from us on this topic. But today’s announcement is going to be talked about a lot in the years ahead. Kudos to Jim Perdue and his company for standing with The HSUS on this important set of issues.