Perdue Unveils a More Humane Chicken Slaughter Process

(Bloomberg) -- For a new generation of concerned consumers, every stop their food makes between farm and table matters.

In the not too distant past, chickens raised without antibiotics were a niche product. Now, they’re everywhere. The number of meat and poultry products making antibiotics-related claims rose 117 percent over the past three years, according to data from research firm Mintel. 

But just as Big Meat bent to demands for organic and antibiotic free products, the new challenge is persuading consumers their dinner was treated nicely before slaughter.

“Consumers are expecting that companies are doing the right thing behind the scenes,” said Melanie Bartelme, a global food analyst for Mintel. In a recent survey of 1,871 consumers by the firm, 29 percent said “humanely raised” is a top attribute, and 28 percent said they’d be willing to pay more for pay more for meat with the label.

Those numbers increase for younger consumers, Bartelme said, driving companies to do better—and talk about it. "There are a lot of different things that these companies are doing to stand out a little bit," she said. D'Artagnan has a Green Circle program of free-range specialty breed birds raised on diets of "actual vegetables" according to the website. Bell & Evans begins touts its "animal-welfare-focused Hatchery" and offers a virtual tour of a breeder operation.

Perdue and its subsidiaries already sell organic and antibiotic-free birds and products certified by the nonprofit Global Animal Partnership. On Tuesday, the company announced it’s further improving the final hours of its chickens’ lives with a more than $20 million investment in the installation of a fully integrated bird transportation system at its Milford, Delaware plant. Rather than being handled by humans, the Perdue chickens in this system will be moved from barns to slaughter by machinery. 

“Any time you have human-animal interaction, you have the potential for abuse to happen,” said Lauri Torgerson-White, an animal welfare specialist at Mercy For Animals. Countless videos online show the mishandling of birds by catchers, who are trained to grab chickens by the legs, several animals in each hand, before putting them in crates for transport. 

“Not everybody knows how to handle animals,” said Mike Levengood, Perdue's chief animal care officer. The introduction of the new system will help the company avoid the problem entirely on the farms where it’s used.

Perdue is starting to use a catching machine, which slowly advances down the length of a barn, nudging birds onto conveyor belts and then into roomier crates than the company previously used. The crates are moved by a forklift onto a newly-designed trailer, which protects the birds from the elements during the drive to the processing plant.

Perdue Unveils a More Humane Chicken Slaughter Process

After the truck arrives, the crates are unloaded and the birds allowed to rest before entering Perdue’s controlled atmosphere stunning system, which uses a combination of carbon dioxide and oxygen to render them senseless over a period of five minutes. The CAS, which the company finished installing late last year, is used in just 5 percent of slaughterhouses, according to the National Chicken Council, and is considered more humane than older methods of stunning birds. Only after the chickens emerge will they be touched by human hands as they’re shackled and prepared for slaughter. 

Standard catching and transport resulted in about 6 percent of the chickens ending up with broken wings, according to Perdue, which says the new system results in 1 percent wing breakage. The new process is better for workers, too. Employees responsible for loading the birds into shackles are no longer forced to work in the dark to help keep the birds calm. The more protective trailers use 32 percent less fuel as well, according to the company.

Animal welfare groups are on board. The system is a “dramatic improvement” over others in the country, said Chris Liptrot, director of corporate relations at the Humane League, who visited Perdue’s facility earlier this year. 

But don’t expect Perdue to produce a slaughter-centric advertising campaign anytime soon. The company doesn’t plan to tout the new process on its packaging, the way it does with an organic seal or a “no antibiotics ever” label. “The focus is going to be on how we raise the animals,” said Eric Christianson, chief marketing officer at Perdue. For consumers who want to know more about the last step of the process, information will be on the company website. "What happens at the plant," he said, "is part of the best care possible."

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