SALISBURY, Md. – Perdue Farms is going the distance when it comes to animal welfare and animal husbandry practices. Ultimately, the company aims to change its institutional culture around animal care and husbandry practices by implementing what are considered progressive poultry raising and harvesting techniques.
The company’s revamped attitude toward animal care focuses on what chickens want in addition to what they need. And what chickens want fall under the Five Freedoms of Animal Welfare, which includes freedom from fear and distress and the freedom to express normal behaviors. Under the company’s reforms, the company will:
- Switch all its slaughtering facilities to Controlled Atmosphere Stunning, which it considers a more humane slaughter system. Perdue already uses CAS at a turkey processing plant. Similar systems will be built and operational for chicken processing by the end of 2017. All of Perdue’s processing plants will utilize controlled atmosphere stunning within seven years.
- Install windows in chicken houses to provide birds with natural light and add enrichments like hay bales and perches;
- Start testing slower-growing birds, because typical growth is so fast it causes chickens to suffer; and
- Provide more space per bird.
Jim Perdue, chairman, said the program was created “with input from university researchers, animal welfare experts and even advocacy groups that maybe have been critical of us in the past.”
First part of the plan focuses on what chickens want and their natural behaviors.
The second part of the plan focuses on Perdue’s contract growers. “They’re the ones who spend the most time with our chickens, and so it’s important that they be an integral part of this journey that we’re on.”
Third, the company aims to earn consumer and customer trust through initiatives the promote transparency. “Our vision as a company is to be the most-trusted name in food and agricultural products. It’s a heritage going back to my dad in the 70s and on forward,” Perdue said. “Our consumers and our customers want transparency; they want to know a lot about what we do.”
The final part of the plan focuses on creating an animal care culture within Perdue Farms. This will involve more than 2,000 farmers, and thousands of Perdue employees who have animal care as part of their management responsibilities.
“It’s a huge effort for a company of our size to communicate what we’re going to do, how we’re going to do it; how we’re going to measure ourselves going forward…” Perdue added.
Dr. Bruce Stuart-Brown, vice president of food safety, quality and live production, said the company’s transition to antibiotic-free poultry production accelerated changes within the company’s animal care and husbandry practices. The main source of help with the transition came from the company’s organic poultry production business which was gained through the 2011 acquisition of Coleman Natural Foods in addition to the acquisition of Niman Ranch in 2015.
“Once you look at organic production and understand the husbandry components of it, you get a real sense there’s more to it than just the (basic) needs,” Stuart-Brown said.
“These animal husbandry techniques are very transferable to the rest of our business” he added.
Among of the Five Freedoms is “freedom from hunger and thirst.” To achieve this, the company changed the nutrition program for the birds initially by removing animal by-products and antibiotics poultry feed. The company expanded its vaccination program as part of the transition from antibiotics as to address the freedom from pain and disease concept. More enhancements followed.
“In order to enhance the animals’ nutrition, we added in some herbs, different things like thyme and oregano and some natural herb-type products that help build the immune system and keep chickens healthy,” Stuart-Brown explained. Perdue also adapted a probiotics regimen, a practice of which Stuart-Brown was admittedly skeptical.
“If you’d asked me 10 years ago I would have said the idea of probiotics and chicken wasn’t particularly helpful,” he said, “but as we’ve worked with it…I’m convinced they are helpful.”
Enhancements that encourage natural behaviors include bales of straw, perches and natural light. Chicken houses normally are fully enclosed except for ventilation systems, and the birds are kept in low-light conditions. Stuart-Brown said chickens responded positively to natural sunlight from the windows, and the company’s contract growers responded positively as well.
Georgie Cartanza, a contract grower for Perdue Farms for 10 years in Camden, Delaware, owns four chicken houses that hold 39,000 birds each. She grows about five flocks per year. Her farm was retrofitted with windows about a year and a half ago.
“I have to say this is one of the best things I’ve seen in a long time,” she said. “By changing over to windows, it allows sunlight into the house. For me personally, I’m happier to be in the house; I find it more comfortable, and I think the birds enjoy it as well because you can definitely see a change in their activity. The birds play more, and that indicates they are much more content.”