IN 1941, Franklin D. Roosevelt articulated four fundamental human freedoms. Now, 75 years later, one of the country’s largest food producers has made a commitment to a similar set of principles — but this time, the focus is on chickens.
Maryland-based poultry producer Perdue Foods announced an animal-welfare overhaul Monday that would bring the company in line with globally recognized guidelines known as the “five freedoms” of animal welfare. The precedent-setting changes — Perdue is the first major U.S. poultry producer to hold itself to so strict a standard — signal a welcome shift in American attitudes toward animal rights.
To spare farm fowl from “discomfort,” “disease” and “distress,” as the five freedoms demand, Perdue plans to make cramped coops look more like playpens. In addition to outfitting enclosures with haystacks, hiding places and perches, the company will reduce the number of birds in each barn and install windows to let in more natural light. Perdue will also put chickens to sleep before slaughter.
Perhaps most important, Perdue has promised to reverse a troubling breeding trend: Many birds are genetically engineered to balloon in size until their organs fail or their legs break under their own weight. Eventually, Perdue will replace these strains of chicken with new, more natural lines — though the company has yet to set a timeline for the transition.
In the past, Perdue has come under fire from animal rights advocacy groups for mistreating its chickens. But the company developed its new policies in concert with many of its old adversaries. The change of heart isn’t just a response to criticism: It’s also an answer to increased calls from consumers to know where their food comes from.
More and more food sellers refuse to stock meat that comes from maltreated animals. The same is true of Americans picking what to put on their dining room tables. Perdue’s revised practices might raise the cost of production, but it doesn’t matter how cheaply a company produces meat if no one wants to buy it.
That’s all the more reason for Perdue’s competitors to take a tip from the company and improve the treatment of their chickens, just as they did when Perdue vowed to eliminate antibiotics from its birds a few years ago. It’s also a sign that Congress should consider passing a law to protect poultry the same way it does other livestock through the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.
“We are going to go beyond what a chicken needs and give chickens what they want,” Jim Perdue said of his company’s commitments. It is hard to say exactly what a chicken wants. But it’s easy enough to realize, as Perdue has, what the animals deserve. We hope others will follow suit.