Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

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To pressure Darden Restaurants, The Humane League organized a picket line outside a Capital Grille restaurant in Manhattan.  Photo credit: Jacy Rees

Not long ago, the animal welfare movement was at war with Perdue Farms over its treatment of broiler chickens.

The Humane Society of the U.S. and Compassion Over Killing had sued Perdue and Kroger, which sells Perdue chickens, over labels claiming that their chickens were “raised in a humane environment.” Compassion in World Farming, working with North Carolina whistleblower who raised chickens for Perdue, exposed animal abuse on one of its farms. An investigation by Mercy for Animals caught Perdue growers on camera stomping chickens to death.

Then, in a startling turnaround, Perdue last year announced a series of animal-care commitments regarding broiler chickens, promising to add windows and perches to poultry houses, to change the ways chickens are killed and, importantly, to explore the use of breeds of chickens that grow more slowly. Perdue also pledged to reward those farmers who provide better animal care and to be transparent with critics about its progress.

Now, Perdue’s erstwhile critics are cheering.

“Perdue initially put its head in the sand,” says Leah Garces, executive director of Compassion in World Farming USA. Today, she says, “they are leading the market, and they’re not turning back.”

“Perdue has leaped ahead of everybody,” says Josh Balk, vice president for farm animal protection of HSUS.

This month, Perdue went a step further, promising to satisfy the demand from dozens of retailers, restaurants and food service companies — among them Whole Foods Market, Aramark, Compass Group, Starbucks and Chipotle — that have promised to meet higher animal-welfare standards for broiler chickens. Balk and Garces attended an “Animal Care Summit” organized by Perdue, and praised the company as a pioneer among poultry producers.

What accounts for the turnaround at Perdue? And, what does it mean for animal welfare in the rest of the $90-billion a year broiler chicken industry? 

For those who care about farm animal suffering, broiler chickens are a big deal. As The Humane League notes in its 88 percent campaign, the overwhelming majority — roughly 88 percent — of the nearly 9 billion farm animals killed for food each year in the US are broiler chickens. They are housed in crowded, dirty sheds, typically without light, and then hung upside down, shackled and killed either by having their throats slit or by being plunged into scalding water. Watch if you dare.

Maryland-based Perdue is one of the four biggest producers of broiler chickens in the US. It slaughters about 700 million birds a year, which is about eight percent of US production. Other big producers are Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride and Sanderson Farms.

Probably the biggest problem with broiler chickens–and the hardest to solve–is their breeding. To produce more meat at a lower cost, chickens have been bred to grow faster and fatter. “A bird today is marketed at more than twice the body weight and reared in half the time as 50 years ago,” says The Humane League. America’s appetite for cheap chicken has led to the creation of birds that are crippled by the weight of their oversized bodies, animal-welfare advocates say. “These animals have been genetically manipulated to the point where they can hardly move at the end of life,” HSUS’s Josh Balk says.

Americans tell pollsters that they care about all this: About 40 percent say they are very concerned or extremely concerned about how chickens are raised or housed, a recent industry survey found. But their actions suggest that they don’t care very much: Per capita consumption of chicken has been growing for decades and will reach record levels this year, according to the National Chicken Council.

A proven playbook

Nevertheless, recent history suggests that the animal-welfare advocates will prevail, just as they have with their recent campaigns to get laying hens out of cages or pigs out of gestation crates. (Broiler chickens are raised for meat; laying hens are raised for eggs.) The playbook, this time around, is a familiar one, as a small but loose-knit group of advocacy organizations take on complementary roles.

In broad terms, Mercy for Animals is best known for its undercover investigations. (Lately, it’s taken to using drones.) The Humane League effectively mobilizes students and local activists. HSUS and Compassion in World Farming negotiate with companies, and HSUS has formidable political and lobbying operations. The Open Philanthropy Project is, in all likelihood, the biggest funders of the movement.

Writing about the cage-free egg campaigns, Lewis Bollard of Open Philanthropy recently noted its sweeping success:

Campaigns since early 2015 have secured pledges from over 200 US companies to eliminate battery cages from their supply chains, including from all of the top 25 US grocers and 16 of the top 20 fast food chains. Collectively, the US Department of Agriculture estimates that these pledges will affect ~225M hens, or ~70% of the US non-organic flock (from less than 5% of hens covered by cage-free pledges previously).

Like the cage-free campaigns, the broiler chicken campaigns began by targeting key customers of poultry producers, starting with major food service firms like Aramark, Compass Group and Sodexo. These companies serve college campuses, and thus are susceptible to pressure from students. Aramark and Compass released broiler policies last November, followed a month later by Sodexo.

The activist groups then turned their attention to restaurants. Panera Bread and Starbucks led the way, followed by many others: Chipotle, Shake Shack, Noodles & Co., Quiznos, TGI Fridays, Au Bon Pain, Red Robin, Subway, Burger King, etc. A full list is here.

It’s relatively easy for restaurants put these commitments into place, since they don’t have to change their own practices. All of the new policies allow their poultry suppliers years — typically, until 2024 — to make the requested improvements.

The Humane League is now campaigning against Darden, parent company of Olive Garden, among others. Future targets, it’s safe to assume, will be KFC, Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s, whose 2015 pledge to source only cage-free eggs was a tipping point in that campaign.

“We learned a lot from the cage-free campaign, and I think our opponents did as well,” says David Coman-Hidy, president of The Humane League. “I think they see the writing on the wall.”

If history is a guide, the broiler campaigns will eventually move on to bigger customers — grocery chains like Walmart and Kroger and food manufacturers like Campbell’s and Unilever. Pressures on the big poultry producers are likely to intensify.

“Premium” chicken prices

The Perdue commitments are significant because they show that a major producer is willing and able to change its ways. Garces told me: “I’m sure they rattled the cages of the other production companies. They could steal business from them.”

Perdue’s senior vp for corporate communications, Andrea Staub, told me by email that Perdue’s concerns about animal-welfare grew after it bought Coleman Natural Foods, an organic brand, in 2011 and Niman Ranch, a producer known for its environmentally-friendly practices, in 2015. She said:

The business case is simple. We want to be the most trusted name in food and agricultural products, and we’re doing that through premium proteins. A strong and transparent animal care program helps build that trust. An increasing number of customers are setting expectations for higher welfare standards, and we’re committed to meeting that demand.

Premium, of course, means higher-priced. Just how high isn’t clear, but adopting slower-growing breeds will  raise the costs of feeding and housing chickens, just getting laying hens out of their cages has raised the cost of cage-free eggs.

As it happens, the transition to cage-free eggs has not gone smoothly. Consumers are reluctant to pay $1 or more per dozen extra for cage free eggs. Farmers are balking at transition costs, too. “Cage-free conversion comes with a high price tag,” wrote Matt Stommes, an industry analyst with Wells Fargo, who grew up on a dairy farm. Chad Gregory of United Egg Producers, an industry lobbying group, recently told BuzzFeed News that it will be “physically and financially impossible” for producers to meet demands from corporate cage-free buyers.

None of this should surprise economists, who understand tradeoffs. There is, they like to say, no such thing as a free lunch — whether it’s an egg salad sandwich or chicken tenders on the menu.

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