Interview: Perdue finds animal welfare makes a better bird

Animal-welfare measures created last year by giant poultry company Perdue Farms Inc., in a break with traditional poultry-raising practices, are starting to show results, Perdue executives said last week.

In an interview in Atlanta at the International Production and Processing Expo, the largest annual meeting of the poultry business, Perdue chairman Jim Perdue and Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown, senior vice president of food safety, quality and live operations, told FERN’s Ag Insider that the measures, which focus on “what a chicken wants,” are producing more active, higher-quality birds.

“Traditionally in this industry, we don’t want them to move, just eat and sleep,” Perdue said. “So we’re going counter to what is traditional.”

The fourth-largest poultry company in the United States shook up the chicken industry in June 2016 with an announcement that it would begin “elevating welfare at every step,” including allowing its chickens natural light and exercise, slowing down the rate at which they grow, and installing systems that stun birds into unconsciousness before they are killed. At the same time, it committed to reworking relationships with its contract farmers, some of whom had gone public with complaints against the company. It also reached out to animal-welfare groups and committed to publicly charting its progress.

The company’s “Commitments to Animal Care” are based on a European animal-welfare concept known as the Five Freedoms, which guarantee freedom from hunger, thirst, pain and fear, and allow animals to express instinctive behaviors. The welfare plan was a break from standard practices such as raising birds on the floors of solid-walled barns with artificially shortened four-hour “nights,” and it was preceded by another divergence from industry standards: the 2014 announcement that Perdue had become the first U.S. poultry company to relinquish routine antibiotic use, a staple of the industry since the 1950s. Instead, Perdue began to favor using herbs and probiotics.

The company now uses no human-use antibiotics in any of the 600 million chickens and turkeys it raises a year, and an animal-antibiotic class called ionophores in just 2 to 5 percent, to treat occurrences of a parasitic illness called coccidiosis. Doing without routine antibiotics was the trigger to reconsidering the animal welfare of its birds, Stewart-Brown said.

“Animal care is the overarching thing, but antibiotics took us there,” he said. “You can’t just pull the antibiotics. You have to consider: What about the hatchery, what about the breeders, how about the farmers, what goes on in the houses?”

In its first six months of changes, the company has begun retrofitting existing barns (known as “houses,” though they can be twice the length of a football field) with windows to allow natural light.

“We said we were going to do 200 [houses], and we are at 180,” Stewart-Brown said. “The chickens are voting positively — they react well to them and they are more active —  and the farmers are voting pretty overwhelmingly positive to it. They are telling us, ‘I like the windowed houses; I spend more time there.’”

Stewart-Brown said the company also has used interns to analyze repeat photographs taken in houses to determine whether birds in ones with the new windows (which are studied alongside barns of the same age and structure that do not have windows) move around more. “We can tell from those shots that we are seeing twice much activity, twice as many birds moving around,” he said.

It is also funding two masters’ students to study whether chickens offered what the industry calls “enrichment” — perches, boxes, bales of straw and shiny objects such as dangling CDs — respond by exercising and playing. The objects are rigged with sensors to record how often birds use them, such as a dangling scale that they hop onto and swing.

The company is exploring whether to tinker with the chicken breeds it raises, to get to a variety of chicken that is more disposed to move around.

“A component of having more activity [may be] using more heritage breeds that are more active to start with,” Jim Perdue said. “We’ve had some in the field, testing them. We don’t know the answers yet, we just [have] a lot of questions … What we’re doing is trying to be a learning organization, and see where the data leads us.”

Before it introduced the welfare program, and at the sixth-month mark, Perdue reviewed its plans privately with several leading animal advocacy organizations. One of them is the British-based farm-animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming.

“I have been very clear with them that the program they announced is a first step,” Compassion’s U.S. director, Leah Garces, told  Ag Insider. “Their birds need more space, they need better lighting, they need something to do; and the breed of bird has to change.”

The results so far seem positive, she said. “But 200 houses is 3 percent of their houses,” she added. “If this is going to matter, it is going to have to apply to all their birds.”

As part of the welfare commitments, Perdue Farms will publish annual reports on its animal-care improvements, with numbers and measures. The first round of reports will be published in “two to three” months, Stewart-Brown said.

Maryn McKenna is a National Geographic contributor, and 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 2017She writes regularly about antibiotics and agriculture for Ag Insider.