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Perdue Unveils New Animal Welfare Practices — But Is It Enough?

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More sunlight and more space are in Perdue chickens' futures

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Perdue, the fourth-largest poultry producer in the U.S., has announced an overhaul of its animal welfare practices which the company says will make its plants more humane and allow its animals to live better lives.

According to the New York Times, Perdue farms will soon install windows, ensure the animals have more space within barns, and put chickens to sleep before they are slaughtered. Additionally, Perdue "may tinker with breeding to decrease the speed at which birds grow or to reduce their breast size, steps that could decrease the number and severity of leg injuries, an issue that has brought unwanted attention to the company," reports the Times.

Perdue "may tinker with breeding to decrease the speed at which birds grow."

Perdue will pay for the window installation at chicken farms it sources from and "may help offset the costs of... things like inclined slats for perching, haystacks for pecking and hiding places where chickens lower down in the pecking order can get away from bullies."

In a blog post, the CEO of The Humane Society of the United States — who met with Perdue in the weeks leading up to the announcement — called it a "pivotal moment" for animal rights issues. "The HSUS previously sued Perdue for false labeling around animal welfare claims and yet the company now has positioned itself at the head of the pack on the very issue we battled on," writes CEO Wayne Nacelle.

Not all activists agree. Animal rights network Direct Action Everywhere (DxE) said in a statement that the announcement was "cheap talk," and failed to address the fundamental issues with animal farming.

"More sunlight is better than less, but crowding, disease, and filth are inevitable when raising so many animals to kill," argues DxE.

Whether or not Perdue's new standards will go far enough in the minds of animal rights activists, they are likely to have an impact with consumers. A Consumer Reports Survey released last week indicates that the information listed on meat packages sways consumers' purchasing decisions.

In truth, the "humanely raised" designation doesn't necessarily mean anything at all.

According to the survey, consumers are often more likely to buy meat products with labels like "organic," "humanely raised," or "raised without antibiotics." Consumers don't seem to know exactly what those labels mean, however. The bulk of those surveyed, for instance, (77 percent) said they believed that meat that is "humanely raised" comes from animals have adequate living space. Sixty-eight percent believed "humanely raised" animals have access to the outdoors, and 71 percent believed those animals were slaughtered humanely.

In truth, the "humanely raised" designation doesn't necessarily mean anything at all. In fact, the term has no official definition and is not verified either by USDA or any other independent organization.

Ariane Daguin, CEO and founder of D'Artagnan (an organic meat purveyor), says the labels slapped on meat have become diluted over time, largely due to the influence of the meat lobby. "Big factory farmers that say they produce organic chicken today often simply buy 'organic' grain from China — which isn't even organic by U.S. standards. They can also tout that chickens have access to the outside —  but it's usually one little door for 100,000 chickens."

Daguin says the labels are confusing for consumers and "infuriating" for a company like D'Artagnan, which sells organic products at a higher price point than companies like Perdue. Though D'Artagnan and Perdue products might have similar labels, Daguin says her company holds its processes to a higher standard. "When people read the word 'organic,' the perception is that it's a small family farm and the growers respect the animals," she says. "I wish I could put, 'more organic than the other guy' on my product. Labels don't necessarily mean the same thing for me and for Mr. Perdue, I guess."

Daguin notes that the taste of a chicken is greatly affected by the life it lived. "It's measurable, the difference in taste, when they are allowed to build muscle and have space to run around and go outside," she says. "When you push tens of thousands of chickens in the same coop, you cannot have the same taste as a true small family farmer."

Though it's unclear exactly how much space Perdue will give to its flocks under the new standards, the Times notes that the company "plans to issue annual reports on its progress on the new standards."

Even some of its critics say that Perdue's announcement is a historic one. Mercy for Animals, an organization that has accused the company of numerous abuses in the past, called it "the most comprehensive animal welfare policy ever adopted by a major chicken producer."

Only time will tell if the country's other large factory farmers follow Perdue's lead. It's worth noting that Tyson, the country's largest producer of chickens, announced a plan to stop giving chickens antibiotics used by humans in April 2015 — just about a year after Perdue made a similar announcement.