At the beginning of September, the Humane Society of the United States filed a shareholder resolution "encouraging Tyson Foods to begin offering some products from chickens killed by a higher-welfare slaughter system called controlled-atmosphere killing," according to an HSUS release, which also notes that Tyson slaughters more than 2 billion birds annually.

The Tyson resolution is part of a wider shareholder strategy HSUS is employing to create change at meat, foodservice and retail companies. Introducing shareholder resolutions "enables another level of dialog with the company, and the more dialog we can have with them, the more likely they are to phase out these cruel factory-farming methods," Paul Shapiro, HSUS’s senior director of the organizations Factory Farm Campaign, told "The question is, Can we avoid the kind of polarized antipathy that has too often surrounded these issues?"

The Society owns shares in 19 companies, including Tyson Foods, Bob Evans Farms, Smithfield Foods, Sara Lee, Wendy’s, Safeway and Wal-Mart, among others. The number of shares varies from company to company; according to Shapiro, the Securities and Exchange Commission requires at least $2,000 worth of stock ownership in order for a shareholder to introduce a shareholder resolution. (HSUS owns 750 shares of Tyson Foods, for example.)

He said the resolution strategy has proven effective. "In 2008, we filed a resolution with Safeway to use more cage-free eggs and pork. That resolution didn’t come up for a vote, but after we filed it the company worked with us to double their cage-free egg supplies to six percent and their cage-free pork to five percent," he told A similar resolution filed with Denny’s was withdrawn after the company agreed to use cage-free eggs.

According to HSUS, "Controlled-atmosphere killing would eliminate many of the abuses by killing the birds with a mixture of inert gases while they are still in their transport crates. The method is used widely in Europe and is becoming more popular in the United States. Many major poultry retailers -- including Quiznos, Ruby Tuesday, Safeway, Harris Teeter, Winn-Dixie and Costco -- have begun using poultry slaughtered by controlled-atmosphere killing. Others -- including Burger King, Chipotle, Popeye’s, Hardee's and Carl’s Jr. -- give purchasing preference to suppliers that switch to the method."

Tyson spokesman Gary Mickelson told "We’re still in the process of reviewing the proposal from HSUS and have not yet determined what action we may take in response, however, we can tell you similar proposals have been submitted in the past and rejected by our shareholders." In 2007, a shareholder proposal similar to HSUS’s was presented to the company’s stock owners by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which elicited this response from Tyson’s board of directors:

"The company has a long-standing policy with respect to the humane treatment of animals and to ensure humane animal handling and care. Acting on this commitment, in November 2003 the company established an Office of Animal Well-Being, which advises company executives and management regarding animal welfare issues. In addition, the Office of Animal Well-Being develops animal handling training materials for company team members and conducts training and audits with respect to animal handling practices throughout the company. The company has developed and implemented animal well-being programs for the chicken, beef and pork businesses.

"Animal well-being is also part of the company’s core values, which call on the company’s team members to ‘serve as stewards of the animals, land and environment entrusted to us.’ The company believes that handling animals in a humane manner, and preventing neglect or abuse, is the right thing to do….

"The company is actively reviewing different methods of animal handling and care, including Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (CAS) and Controlled Atmosphere Killing (CAK). These evaluations consider a number of factors, including: animal welfare; scientific research and studies; production methods used commercially both in the U.S. and internationally; food safety and product quality; the safety of humans involved in the slaughter process; technical difficulties in operating equipment and procedures; environmental factors, expected costs and other potential benefits. While the company’s limited research has concluded controlled atmosphere stunning may be an acceptable alternative, the company has not currently found it to be more humane than conventional electrical stunning…"

Responding specifically to the HSUS proposal, the National Chicken Council stated in part:

"According to scientists, there is no advantage in terms of animal welfare for gas killing systems for poultry compared to the conventional stunning systems used by the United States chicken industry. The industry feels that while gas systems are worthy of further study, there is no proven reason yet to move away from conventional stunning systems."

The SEC requires that a resolution be supported by at least 3 percent of voting shares in order to qualify for next year’s proxy, 6 percent in the second year and 10 percent in the third year. Shapiro said that typically, a company will recommend a ‘No’ vote on resolutions introduced by HSUS, but he hopes the resolution introduced to Tyson’s shareholders will receive the necessary 3 percent to appear on next year’s proxy and possibly gain still more support then. "But more important than that is helping the company move to controlled-atmosphere killing."