A major US poultry company is revamping its operation to give its chickens better lives

A better life.
A better life.
Image: Reuters/Michaela Rehle
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

The fourth-largest US poultry company is about to make operational changes that it says will ensure its chickens suffer less before they get to your kitchen table.

During the last five years, executives at Perdue Farms sought input from academics, farmers, veterinarians and animal welfare advocates on how to best revamp the methods by which the company produces poultry products. Here’s what they learned:

  • Chickens enjoy having the space and ability to move around on their own two legs, and even, on occasion, perch.
  • The birds are more comfortable when they aren’t crammed into barns with zero exposure to natural sunlight.
  • Rather than an instantaneous death by an electrical stun, chickens will be less susceptible to pain if instead they are slowly introduced to carbon dioxide, making them fall asleep and die shortly thereafter. This method is also more comfortable for workers.

The company plans to install (pdf) windows in 200 of its poultry houses (500 already have switched), and study how exposure to sunlight impacts the chickens’ health compared to those in houses without sunlight. If it produces positive results, Perdue Farms will set yearly target for retrofitting about all its 5,000 houses with windows. It has already mandated that all newly built chicken houses will have windows.

Perdue expects that making these changes will result in healthier birds, enabling it to continue curbing the use of  antibiotics on its farms. If birds are happier, less stressed and able to physically move around while they’re being raised for slaughter, chances are they’ll be healthier and less prone to illness, said Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue’s vice president for safety and food quality.

Perdue’s production changes have affected the entire industry in the past and these new moves could again change common practices. Perdue was the first major US poultry company to curb the use of antibiotics, noting the outsized role drug use in animal agriculture has had on antibiotic resistance in humans. Other companies have since followed, including top US poultry producer Tyson Foods.

Perdue Farms executives this week said they aren’t yet ready to talk about how much money it will take to overhaul their current setup, in part because they are leaving much of the work to their 2,000 contracted farmers. The farmers will be offered pay incentives to make changes that lead to happier, healthier birds.

“It’s a big undertaking but one that they’re willing to do, and it’s the right thing to do,” said company CEO Jim Perdue. “We’ll never go back, it’s a journey moving forward.”