The Humane Society Says Pilgrim’s Pride Is ‘Scalding Fully Conscious Chickens’

(Bloomberg) -- More and more, American consumers want their food to come from animals who are “happy.”

What does that mean? Well, animal welfare advocates say it means egg-laying hens should have the freedom to spread their wings instead of being packed into cages. Mother pigs shouldn’t spend their lives locked up, immobilized in gestation crates. And broiler chickens should, at the very least, be afforded the privilege of a bit of space to move around, some natural light, and maybe even a bale of hay to jump up on. It means that all of them should be killed humanely, suffering as little pain as possible in the process.

Food producers that don’t make such accommodations are increasingly punished by shoppers. Chicken companies have taken notice, especially since commodity chicken prices are near record lows. “What protein producers know is that the customer is willing to pay premiums for certain welfare standards,” said Jeremy Scott, a senior research analyst at Mizuho Americas.

Many of the major chicken companies claim to be making big strides in satisfying consumer demand for meat that dies with a smile on its beak. But when a consumer reads the labels on a package in the meat case or claims on a company website, there’s no easy way to know whether they represent fulfilled promises—or empty branding.

Perdue Farms Inc., for example, said it’s adding windows to its barns, holding annual animal welfare summits and introducing new, slower-growing chicken breeds. Its Global Animal Partnership-certified birds have gained the brand entry into Whole Foods, not to mention accolades from the Humane Society of the United States. Maple Leaf Foods, one of the biggest poultry companies in Canada, is building a new plant that puts welfare front and center, with features such as more humane methods to render birds unconscious prior to slaughter and remote video monitoring to ensure that animals are well-cared for.

And Pilgrim’s Pride is expanding distribution of its American Humane Certified Just BARE chicken brand—the “top choice of consumers” in online sales, Chief Executive Officer Bill Lovette said during a recent call with analysts.

But according to a complaint filed by the Humane Society Wednesday with the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, the majority of Pilgrim’s Pride chickens are raised and slaughtered in cruel and inhumane environments and then sold as “100% natural” birds that were raised as “humanely as possible.”

The Humane Society said the allegations in its 81-page complaint, a copy of which was obtained by Bloomberg News, are based on undercover investigations, whistleblower claims and U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection records. Like most broiler chickens in the U.S., Pilgrim’s Pride birds have been bred to grow so fast that their legs can’t support them, according to the complaint. The breed grows unnaturally fast, reaching slaughter weight in a mere 50 days, and frequently suffers from cardiovascular problems, ruptured tendons and bone deformities, the Humane Society alleged. The usually dark, windowless barns they live in are filled with feces, ammonia and dust, contributing to respiratory problems and eye lesions, according to the complaint. The buildings are so crowded that birds are afforded only about 100 square inches each.

Cameron Bruett, a spokesman for Pilgrim’s Pride, a Greeley, Colorado-based subsidiary of Brazilian meat processing giant JBS SA, rejected the Humane Society’s complaint.

“Pilgrim’s is committed to the well-being of the poultry under our care,” Bruett wrote in an email. “We welcome the opportunity to defend our approach to animal welfare against these false allegations.” The National Chicken Council, an industry lobby, didn’t return a call or email seeking comment on the filing. The USDA directed inquiries to the FTC, which also didn’t return requests seeking comment.

In general, so many U.S.-produced broiler chickens die on the way to slaughter that the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service calls them DOAs, or “dead-on-arrival,” the Humane Society said. At the Pilgrim’s Pride processing plant, the living birds are shackled by their legs and hung upside down to be dragged through stun baths and then killed, according to the complaint. However, the process doesn’t always work as intended. Sometimes the chickens miss the bath entirely, or they aren’t sufficiently stunned (out of concern for damaging their flesh) and remain conscious as their throats are slit by industrial kill blades, the Humane Society said. Still, even some of those chickens survive because they miss the blades and the “back-up killer” as well, the Humane Society alleged.

Unstunned and unkilled, Pilgrim’s Pride processors are “scalding fully conscious chickens,” the Humane Society said. Such birds are effectively drowned and burned alive when they are submerged in hot water intended to make feather removal easier, according to the complaint.

When this happens, the birds turn red. The USDA refers to these carcasses as “cadavers,” though in industry vernacular, they are known as “red birds.” These conditions, the Humane Society says, are “absolutely not the most humane option possible.”

Humane Society and other animal welfare activists prefer Controlled Atmosphere Stunning systems, in which birds are slowly gassed. It’s reportedly the method used by Pilgrim’s Pride subsidiary GNP, which sells the Just BARE and Gold’n Plump lines, Humane Society said in the complaint.

It’s gaining traction as a preferred slaughter method. “The industry is moving toward gas stunning,” said Tom Elam, president at FarmEcon LLC, a food and agriculture consultancy. “It’s a little more expensive but a more humane way to do it.”

In various places on its website, Pilgrim’s Pride states that it “ensures that birds are humanely raised” through an “uncompromising commitment” to animal welfare that includes “strict” adherence to protocols of the “highest standards.” Packaging at the supermarket calls the chickens “100% natural.” Peter Brandt, managing attorney of the Humane Society’s farm animals litigation arm, called the claims “some of the most far-fetched and misleading.”

In its filing, the Humane Society asked the FTC to investigate its claims and to stop the company’s allegedly misleading advertising. Humane Society has successfully used FTC complaints in the past. In 2013, for example, a similar complaint by the organization spurred pork producer Seaboard Foods to change advertising language that claimed it was using “the most humane practices,” despite confining breeding pigs in gestation crates. (In a statement, Seaboard said it continues to use gestation crates for some sows.) And in 2016, the Humane Society asked the FTC to rein in companies that claimed their products were made from “faux fur” when in fact, real fur was used. The agency published a blog post warning consumers.

While the Humane Society seeks to draw consumer attention to practices that may shock them, Elam said such jarring scenes are the unavoidable reality of industrial food processing. “Anytime you concentrate a large number of animals and manage them, you're going to have death loss and welfare issues,” Elam said. “If you attempt to address all of those, you’re going back to the 18th century, where every farmer raised a few chickens outside, and they’re slower-growing but extremely expensive.”

Be that as it may, the tactics of groups such as the Humane Society can be effective. “Even without FTC action,” said attorney John E. Villafranco, who practices advertising law at Kelley Drye & Warren LLP, “complaints themselves may have an effect on the company involved.”

The Humane Society says that it has reached out to Pilgrim’s Pride many times, including to its CEO and board members, offering to help the company raise its animal welfare standards. But Pilgrim’s Pride never responded, Brandt said.

“The root of the problem is that the business model is set up to be so inherently cruel to all of the birds,” Brandt said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.