The 21-day-old chicken — white-feathered, dark-eyed, with a brush-cut of pale yellow bristles above its beak — climbed carefully up a ramp, teetered briefly at the top, then launched itself into space. It landed on another bird, flapped hard, and gave its accidental landing pad an apologetic peck. Then it wandered off into a crowd of more than 49,000 chickens just like it that were hopping into boxes, poking their beaks into straw bales, and settling in pools of sunlight for a snooze.
If you’d never been in a broiler barn — or “house,” industry parlance for the enormous sheds where meat chickens are raised — the whole scene might have seemed normal. But in a corner by the door, Joyce Brittingham looked around and marveled at how different her farm had become. A chicken farmer since 1985, she came up in the days when somnolent birds were raised in empty, solid-walled buildings under lights barely bright enough to read a newspaper by. She still runs one of the two chicken houses on her property in Frankford, Del., that way.
But in the other, where we were standing, there were big square windows lighting the interior, and perches, swings and shelters to encourage the birds to move.
“They are much more active,” she said of her birds. “They like the light, and I do too. It reminds me of the way things used to look, and the things the older people used.”
Brittingham’s bright new chicken house is part of a test being run by Perdue Farms, the company for which she grows chickens. In the past year, the company has installed windows and what it calls “enrichments” in more than 200 houses throughout the states where it grows chickens, in an effort to determine whether improving the lives of its birds is compatible with a big food company’s bottom line.
On Monday and Tuesday, the company disclosed its results so far to a summit meeting of customers, farmers, and a slate of animal-welfare activists who have pressed for years for improvements. It showed off the farm owned by Brittingham and farmer Gary West as an example of its new practices.
“Our goal is, if a chicken had a choice who was going to raise it, we’d like to imagine it would raise both wings and say ‘Perdue,’” Bruce Stewart-Brown, a veterinarian and the company’s senior vice president of food safety, quality and live operations, told the gathering in Salisbury, Md., just across the border from Delaware. “And if farmers had a choice, and they usually they do have a choice of whose chickens they raise, we want them to want to raise our chickens.”
The fourth-largest poultry company in the United States broke with its industry a year ago when it announced it would implement a comprehensive welfare-improvement policy, a follow-on to its 2014 announcement that it was ending routine antibiotic use. A year later, the company said it has:
- Installed windows in 17 percent of existing houses, with a plan to increase that to 25 percent by the end of 2017; it also has required windows in any new houses.
- Guaranteed that chickens will be allowed six hours of darkness per day, more than the industry standard.
- Decreased the “stocking density,” or number of birds per house, by 3 percent, and is testing a 14-percent reduction in one area of the country.
- Experimented with slower-growing breeds of chickens, which are sturdier and less subject to leg and joint problems.
- Added enrichments to houses and assigned student interns to measure whether and how birds use them.
- Installed a “controlled atmosphere” slaughter system, which gasses birds into unconsciousness before they are killed, in one processing plant, and says it intends to add it to all its plants.
Perdue also disclosed extra compensation for farmers — who traditionally are paid for how quickly and efficiently chickens gain weight — to keep the slow-growth and low-density programs from penalizing them.
Leah Garces, the U.S. director of the farm-animal-welfare organization Compassion in World Farming, has long been a critic of Perdue. In 2014, she helped one of the company’s contract farmers go public with his concerns over animal welfare. She said the summit announcements represent real progress.
“I’m encouraged to see that their progress report is down to percentages: 25 percent of their houses will have windows, they’ve given chickens 3 percent more space,” said Garces, who attended the summit along with representatives of Mercy for Animals, Farm Forward, and the Humane Society of the United States. “They’re really delving down into the details of how they’re running their farms and what is meaningful for the animals. It’s very encouraging.”
Anne Malleau, executive director of the Global Animal Partnership, a nonprofit that certifies companies’ adherence to welfare standards, said Perdue’s next step should be to seek a third-party audit of its practices, which would allow it to note its improved animal-welfare standing on its product labels.
Jim Perdue, the company’s chairman, said the welfare improvements will continue, with another summit meeting and further disclosures scheduled for next year.
“We are committed to this journey,” he told the gathering. “We can’t pretend we are a small company. Our objective is to make it clear that a big company can be trusted.”
Maryn McKenna is the author of Superbug and Beating Back the Devil. She last wrote for FERN about how the Netherlands cut antibiotic use on farms. Her new book on antibiotics in agriculture will be published by National Geographic Books/Penguin Random House in 2017. She writes regularly about antibiotics and agriculture for Ag Insider.