One of the largest chicken producers in the United States, Perdue Farms recently released its first-ever chicken welfare report in July 2017. The company says it has taken important steps to follow through on plans it announced a little over a year ago to change the way it raises and slaughters chickens. 
Perdue says in the report that it implemented new breeding methods which allow chickens to grow at a faster rate without causing them harm. The company additionally claimed that it would install stunning systems that minimize stress to the birds as they’re headed to slaughter.
Over time, the changes will be rolled out to about 1,500 contract farmers and 5,000 chicken houses, according to company chairman Jim Perdue and senior vice president Bruce Stewart-Brown.
Factory Farms Have a Serious Negative-Image
In recent years, Perdue Farms has had its share of problems. One I can recall off-hand was in 2014, when farmer Craig Watts – a contractor for Perdue at the time – revealed shocking video footage of the filthy, unhealthy, and downright inhumane living conditions suffered by chickens produced for the company.
Watts, who eventually left the chicken farming industry in disgust, went on to release equally disturbing video footage of the horrid living conditions and treatment of chickens produced for Pilgrim’s Pride.
In both videos, over-large chickens are seen crammed together in a filthy warehouse. They have no natural light in to bask in, and the birds must literally trample each other just to get to their feed.
‘Positive Changes are Coming’
Perdue Farms, the 4th-largest poultry producer in the country, is the largest poultry producer to ensure chickens in its supply chain are treated better, according to Humane Society of the U.S. vice president Josh Balk.
The new chicken houses have lots of windows, space for the chickens to move about, even ramps and straw bales for the birds to perch on. 
Leah Garces, executive director of Compassion in World Farming, who recently took a tour of Perdue’s vision of the future, said “It’s a big difference.” She added that chickens in the house with natural light are “running around, climbing on things, pecking, perching,” compared with the chickens in the the windowless house, which are “quiet, they’re sitting, they’re not moving.”
Company executives say they’ve seen a substantial difference in the health and quality of the chickens raised in better conditions. Jim Perdue said the company found that when chickens are more active and not left squatting in cramped conditions, the meat is of higher quality, something they learned when they started raising their birds according to organic rules.
“We’re finding that meat from organic chickens is better. More tender. Different color. Activity is the key. [Organic chickens] are more active, they’re running around.”
Any person who has ever eaten organic, humanely-raised meat can attest that there is an elephantine difference in the quality and flavor of organic meat. The superior birds – the organic ones – are better for human health, too.
Even without Perdue Farms’ revelations about the virtues of organic chicken farming, pressure from big corporate customers certainly would have forced the poultry producer to alter its behavior. These customers include food service companies and other institutions, such as Aramark and Compass, both of which have announced that by 2024, they will only purchase chickens from companies that improve the lives of its birds.
The food service companies say they’ll only purchase chickens from companies that raise them according to new animal welfare rules set in place by Global Animal Partnership, an organization originally launched by the grocery chain Whole Foods.
Those rules include:
- Chicken houses will have natural light.
- Chicken producers will use a new slaughtering process that knocks the birds unconscious with gas before they are killed. This will replace electrical stunning, which involves hanging the birds by their feet on a sort of conveyor belt and their heads come into contact with electrically charged water.
More Progress Needs to be Made
Perdue is on the path to meeting the requirements, but there is one hurdle that could be hard for the company to hop over: growing a chicken that can freely move about because it doesn’t fatten up as quickly.
In the secret videos recorded by Craig Watts, hugely fat chickens endeavor to navigate the facilities, balanced on its 2 scrawny legs, only for their legs to give out under the birds’ weight – an image described by Watts as “2 toothpicks sticking out a grape.”
Chickens are raised for breast meat, and for the last, oh, 60 years or so, chicken producers have been on a mission to increase the size of their birds in order to compete. The competition reaches as far down as the farmers themselves, whose pay depends on the amount of meat their birds produce. Chickens have quadrupled in size since the 1950’s, according to a 2014 study in the journal Poultry Science.
The Global Animal Partnership demands that companies use slower-growing breeds. The animal welfare group hasn’t decided which breeds will meet its standard, but Perdue Farms is studying 6 alternative breeds at a research farm.
Unfortunately, the switch to slower-growing chickens is likely to have a palpable impact on business. And because certain breeds of slower-growing chickens produce less breast meat and bigger legs, buyers can expect to feel the impact, too. They may have to pay more for poultry, or eat more dark meat.
Jim Purdue said:
“This is a big change for our company as well as the industry. Getting everyone aligned is the big challenge. From that aspect, I think things are going well as far as people understanding what we want to look like.” 
 Associated Press
Links to some of Perdue’s Latest Documents: