The Next Big Battle for Farm Animals: The Chicken Meat Industry

This week saw an important breakthrough for animal welfare: Perdue—the fourth-largest chicken producer in the country—announced it will make certain reforms in how it raises and kills birds. For so long the industry essentially disregarded animal welfare while other sectors in animal agribusiness made improvements. The issue now becoming a top-of-mind concern couldn’t come soon enough.

As background, chickens in the meat industry are bred to suffer. Companies have designed birds whose genetic makeup forces them to grow so quickly, they’re full size after little more than a month. This freakish, rapid growth causes immense pain—especially in the birds’ legs, which often cripple underneath the weight of their massive bodies. These birds have breathing problems as they attempt to suck in enough air to provide oxygen for their immense bodies and many—despite being just babies—suffer heart attacks and lung failure.


Poultry processing plant (image: vodograj/Shutterstock)

Aside from the cruel genetic manipulation forced upon these creatures, virtually all chickens in the meat industry are made to spend their lives in windowless, barren warehouses packed wing-to-wing with other birds.  Imagine walking into what is essentially an airplane hangar and peering into a sea of white feathers; that’s what a meat chicken facility looks like.

These poor animals’ deaths are also terrible. The industry uses a system called “live shackling,” in which birds are dumped onto a conveyer and then shackled by workers—all while fully conscious. The shackles take the birds to electrified water that immobilizes them without knocking them out, right before their necks are cut open by a metal slicer. Birds who are shackled improperly (and thus miss the slicing blade) then drown in a tank of scalding hot water intended to loosen their feathers.

This is heartbreaking cruelty on a massive scale, inflicted on nine billion chickens each year in the U.S.

But there is hope.

Longtime animal welfare leaders Whole Foods Market and Bon Appétit Management Company recently moved to begin improving these chickens’ lives. They announced policies demanding that their poultry suppliers start to slow birds’ unnaturally-rapid growth, provide more space per bird, offer enrichments (like hay bales), and provide natural light in chicken sheds. Bon Appétit is also mandating that its suppliers switch to Controlled Atmosphere Stunning, a slaughter system that scientists and animal behaviorists have found to cause far less suffering to birds.

And this brings us to Perdue’s new policy. Following Whole Foods’ and Bon Appétit’s lead,  Perdue has now announced that it will start making the reforms regarding enrichments, natural light, and Controlled Atmosphere Stunning, as well as researching further steps on rapid growth and space-per-bird. While Perdue still lacks timelines on meeting these goals—and the goals still lack some specifics—this is an important step in the right direction from one of the largest poultry producers, and one no other major producer has taken.

In the weeks and months to come, we’ll be attempting to work with every major poultry buyer and producer to follow these steps and more. Just as we’re helping rid factory farms of cruel confinement in tiny cages for veal calves, breeding pigs and egg-laying hens, change is certainly coming to the poultry industry too. Some will fight it and some will embrace it. But it’s now clear that for these critical reforms, it’s not a matter of if but rather when. 

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