Today, the national fast food chain Sonic has announced new policies to bring about better conditions for all the chickens in its supply chain. The Oklahoma-based company serves food to more than three million customers each day at its 3,500 locations, so this announcement will surely reverberate through the poultry sector.
Sonic joins the surging ranks of retailers interested in animal welfare. Over the last several months, fast food giants like Burger King, Subway, and Jack in the Box; food service operators such as Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass Group; and dozens of other companies have made similar announcements. Even Perdue—one of the country’s largest chicken producers—has a made a series of groundbreaking announcements committing to address these animal welfare concerns.
These companies’ announcements are part of the response to our “9 Billion Lives” campaign, aiming to overhaul how the chicken industry treats birds raised for meat. Specifically, they’re mandating ameliorative changes in breeding (so the birds’ rapid growth isn’t causing immense suffering to their young bodies), the amount of room birds are given, the living conditions the animals are afforded (they’ll have enrichments like perches and hay bales so they can engage in natural behaviors), and a switch to Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (so birds are rendered unconscious prior to being shackled during slaughter).
Even as we and other animal protection organizations continue making headway toward replacing these outdated, cruel systems—and even as large-scale customers like Sonic demand change—some in the industry still seem to have their heads in the sand. Reports from the industry’s recent “Chicken Marketing Summit,” for example, assert that consumer concerns about animal welfare stem from “misguided beliefs” and call those concerns “a farce.” At the Summit, Bill Lovette, CEO of Pilgrim’s Pride—one of the largest chicken producers—held firm to this belief, bemoaning that “consumers just don’t understand what we do.”
For anyone in industry to think all is well in conventional poultry production is an example of willful denial. And Lovette’s claims, specifically, are particularly tone-deaf. Just a few weeks ago, we released details of a multi-state undercover investigation into a Pilgrim’s Pride contract farm and company-owned slaughterhouse that documented a farm owner bludgeoning animals with a metal rod, and slaughterhouse workers punching birds and maliciously abusing them in other ways. To Mr. Lovette and others in the industry who think consumers’ concerns about animal welfare stem from a naiveté about poultry production, perhaps it’s time for them to take ownership of animal welfare issues rather than treat them as optional features of their production standards. Perdue and other poultry producers are showing leadership and embracing the advancement of broiler chicken welfare, and it’s time that the rest of the industry follow suit.