The Humane Society happily shared the news that a pair of lawsuits agains Chicken giant Perdue Farms, Inc. have succeeded in forcing the company to remove claims that chickens are humanely treated from labels of their Harvestland branded broilers.
Perdue uses the "humanely raised" claim in accordance with voluntary standards established by the chicken industry itself. According to the news item on the second lawsuit against Perdue Farms:
Public records obtained from USDA—which Perdue fought to keep hidden from public view—show that the standards upon which Perdue bases its “Humanely Raised” claim are the voluntary so-called “Animal Welfare Guidelines” of the National Chicken Council—the trade group for the chicken industry.
These standards can be audited by a third party, but such audits are not required. All that is required to use the label claim is that the supplier commit to certain principles and practices and audit themselves on their compliance to the industry's checklist of humane practices.
When consumers read that their meal has been humanely treated, they certainly expect that the animals had adequate water and food, were not subjected to extreme temperatures, and were processed and killed as humanely as possible. The average consumer may not understand all the ins and outs of what constitutes a humane death for a bird, but they probably don't envision the bird being hung by its feet and electrically shocked.
Even if the shock sufficiently knocks the bird out that it does not suffer during subsequent decapitation or 'cervical disarticulation', and the bird is not shocked by stray currents before its impending death, this most common method for industrial chicken processing is certainly not the one we imagine qualifying for special labelling about how kindly our food has been treated.
In fact, better methods have been developed. Controlled atmosphere killing (CAK) and controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS) in the best case leave the chickens in their transport crates, where they are sent into a chamber filled with an inert gas. Unconsciousness comes quickly when oxygen levels are low: people who can hold their breath for many minutes often succumb so quickly in confined spaces with low oxygen levels that they cannot react to their situation, making 'confined space entry' one of the biggest issues for the occupational safety and health association (OSHA).
It turns out that, in this case, we won't learn whether the plaintiffs' claims of even more serious maltreatment of chickens by Perdue Farms were legitimate because they will drop their claims pursuant to the settlement under which Perdue Farms will no longer use the "humanely raised" label.
So how can a consumer judge whether they are getting what they are paying for when vendors put a premium label on their product? First, look for an actual 'seal of approval' or stamp, or other marking to indicate that the claim is certified by an independent organization. If you are not sure, do a little internet searching -- find a label you can trust.
Don't forget the many farms too small to join in on the certification game, either: get to know the supplier -- or a friend who recommends the supplier.
And if you want to keep the pressure on for meat producers really to perform better, and not just jump on the high-priced bandwagon, consider making a donation to the humane society or other organizations that police the animal welfare scene.