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Perdue animal welfare report draws mixed reactions from activists

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Perdue Foods has made a number of changes to how it handles its chickens, including providing more space and light for flocks. (Submitted photo from Perdue)

Salisbury-based chicken-processing company Perdue Foods’ first report Monday detailing its progress on animal welfare commitments announced last year is receiving mixed reactions from animal rights activists.

The company has added windows to 200 chicken houses since the effort began and has increased the overall bird space on its contracted farms by 3 percent, according to the Perdue Foods Commitment to Animal Care report. Stocking density has decreased from 7.06 pounds per square foot to 6.85, and 210 additional chicken houses have been built.

The company implemented a six-hour minimum mandatory lights-off resting period for all of its chickens. Perdue also created 17 farmers’ councils for farmers to share their thoughts on Perdue’s changes. They’ve each held three meetings since their inception.

The company is offsetting costs its contracted farmers must incur to increase the space per chicken, increase the time between flocks (another requirement, which was crafted in hopes of breeding healthier chickens) or provide documentation proving that the requirements are being met.

What’s next? Perdue’s senior vice president for corporate communications Andrea Staub called it a “continuous journey.”

Perdue is working to install its first Controlled Atmosphere Stunning system, which stuns the chickens before they are shackled for slaughter, in Milford, Delaware, Staub said. It will be operational by November, according to the report.

At one southern growing area, chickens were granted 14 percent more space. Studies of their behavior and health will determine the fate of future expansion efforts, but the company is aiming to reduce its stocking density to 6 pounds per square foot across the board.

Perdue is also working to expand outdoor access by 200 chicken houses by the end of the year.

As of July, 17 percent of the houses have windows, the company is aiming to increase this figure to 25 percent before the year ends.

By 2020, Perdue will fully implement video monitoring in all of its plants, according to the report. This comes after video from a contract farm in North Carolina revealed poor treatment of the animals, and prompted authorities to file animal cruelty charges against workers.

Animal rights activists shared varying opinions on the report.

“This is a very positive step in the right direction and it puts Perdue as the leader within the largest poultry producers in the U.S. when it comes to animal welfare,” said Josh Balk, the vice president of farm animal protection at Humane Society of the United States.

The Humane Society has been working with Perdue for two years on their animal welfare policies, Balk said.

“We are calling on the rest of the poultry industry to stop lagging behind and catch up to Perdue,” Balk said.

But for Alex Hershaft, the president of the Farm Animal Rights Movement, headquartered in Bethesda, it’s too little, too late.

“Jim Perdue is about 20 years behind in his statement,” Hershaft said of the company’s chairman. “The time to improve conditions for his chickens was roughly the turn of the 20th century,” he said. “The future of Perdue and Tyson and similar industries are in the raising of plant-based foods.”

Tyson has already recognized this, he said, as it has taken a 5 percent stake in Beyond Meat, a company that sells plant-based burger patties, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Regardless, more people seem to be taking notice of Perdue’s efforts.

Visits to Perdue facilities by public officials, community groups, customers and journalists have quadrupled in the last year, said the report.

“Whereas last year we were doing five or six, now it’s more like 100,” Staub said.

The visits are available to public officials, community groups and media officials as needed and upon request, she said.

“More people, especially millennials, are interested in where their food is coming from,” she said. “People are hearing about what Perdue is doing, and now more people want to come and see it for themselves.”

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