Perdue Farms is desperate to rebrand itself as an ethical, transparent poultry producer.
The enormous private company, responsible for bringing 640 million chickens to market annually in the United States, has been around for a century, but was never so reviled as it was in December 2014.
That’s when a video hit the Internet, revealing the horrific conditions in which Perdue’s chickens are raised. The video was the result of an unlikely partnership between animal welfare organization, Compassion in World Farming, and Perdue farmer Craig Watts, who was fed up with the limitations and inherent cruelty of industrial farming.
Watts told Farm Aid:
“We are contractually bound to farm this way. The contract handcuffs me from making changes that would really matter, like being able to open the windows in the chicken house, giving them access to the outdoors, and more space.”
Ever since, Perdue has been scrambling to repair the damage. First there was a mysterious clause that appeared in all contracts from October 2014 onward, forbidding all photos and audiotapes of chickens without the company’s permission. Such a clause is known as “ag-gagging,” designed to keep activists from infiltrating the property, but it also prevents farmers from documenting what’s going on in their own barns. Mother Jones reported in May that this clause has since been removed because it “doesn’t fit in” with Perdue’s new push toward transparency.
Now the company has announced its intention to consider what chickens would want. Bruce Stewart-Brown, a senior vice-president at Perdue, told The Atlantic:
“We were pretty good at caring for chickens and taking care of what they need, but we haven’t necessarily been thinking about what they want.”
Hence a new pledge to create farms that are better for both chickens and humans. It has four parts: 1) thinking about the wants and needs of animals, 2) improving relations with the farmers that raise the chickens, 3) being open to criticism of current policies, and 4) continuing to advance its knowledge about animal care.
So far these changes have taken the form of installing windows in chicken barns, administering fewer antibiotics (unless chickens are sick), imposing a vegetarian diet (although whose brilliant idea it was to vegetarian-ize an animal that is supposed to peck for insects in the dirt, I do not know), and ‘enhancements’ (a.k.a. chicken toys), which are essentially crates and ramps on which chickens can play.
The Atlantic reports:
“There are a couple of ways to tell a happy chicken from an unhappy one. A happy chicken is one that moves around and is curious about the world around him. A happy chicken has strong legs and abrasion-free feet. An unhappy chicken has sores and weak legs. It lies about for the duration of its life and then dies.”
Karen Speake, a contract farmer for Perdue, is happy with the large windows installed in her barns. She used to lose 15 chickens a day out of the 40,000 she raises at a time, but the death rate has dropped by half since changes were implemented. She told a reporter for The Atlantic that her chicken house “used to be like a motel. Now, it’s like the Hilton.”
These are good changes. Industrial animal farming is such an insidious business that the more light is shed on practices and the more these are forced to evolve, the better for all, particularly the animals who suffer through it. But a bigger issue remains – that if Perdue were to ask its chickens what they really want, they probably wouldn’t want to be eaten. After all, we’re talking about a product that is not necessary so much as preferred.
In the meantime, Craig Watts, who was named Whistleblower of the Year 2016, has submitted a letter of resignation to Perdue, unwilling to work with the company any longer. He hopes to turn his chicken barns into greenhouses and try his hand at aquaponics. His advice to chicken-eaters?
“You make a choice three times a day what sort of meal you will eat. Consumers can, and do, make a difference. Public pressure is going to change this system. Farmers and the government aren’t going to be able to make the changes on their own. The only way is for the public to apply the pressure.”