Will Factory Farm Industry Evolve and Embrace Change - or Continue Practice of Torturing Chickens to Death?

Industrial chicken companies are embroiled in the largest controversy they’ve ever faced regarding how they treat animals, with their largest customers—companies like Burger King and Subway—mandating changes. The question now is: will the industry’s trade association, the National Chicken Council, play a game of chicken with its members’ customers, or evolve the industry’s animal welfare standards to meet the demand?

It’s never easy to defend practices like genetically manipulating birds to the point in which they’re having heart attacks weeks after birth, or growing them so unnaturally obese they can barely walk by the end of their lives. There’s no rational justification for slaughtering birds by shackling them upside down and slitting their throats while fully conscious. 

These standard abuses contradict the basic consumer belief that animals ought to be treated with decency. It’s no wonder why major food companies have recently partnered with The Humane Society of the United States and other organizations to announce comprehensive animal welfare policies to improve the lives of these poor chickens, who are raised by the billions. In addition to Burger King and Subway, other major names that have joined this effort include TGI Fridays, Starbucks, Chipotle, Jack in the Box, food service companies Aramark and Sodexo, and many more.

So, the chicken industry’s leadership is at a crossroads. Does it listen to the country’s largest chicken buyers and make meaningful reforms? Or does it argue, spin and fight to maintain a status quo that’s out-of-step with what its customers want and some of its own chicken member producers are proudly moving away from?

We’ve seen this play out before.

The veal, pork and egg industries have all reached similar crisis points. In those industries, it became standard to confine animals in cages and crates so cramped and tiny the animals could barely for their entire lives. Imagine being trapped inside of a coffin: that’s what life has been like for hundreds of millions of these animals.

When these standard practices were exposed, consumers were rightly outraged. At first, these industries defended their methods. Perhaps not surprisingly, the public didn’t buy their claims, and soon corporate policies and laws were enacted to change these practices.

By and large—after years of fighting against the tidal wave of reforms—veal, egg and pork producers responded by agreeing to change their production techniques: major producers of these products are getting out cage confinement, opting instead to phase-in group and cage-free housing.

To their credit, Perdue and other poultry producers have made strides to meet the market’s mandate for better treatment. In a stark contrast, the National Chicken Council still seems to cling to an old, outdated way of business—to cling to the notion that they can resist the common-sense reforms major buyers of their members’ products are demanding.

But history has shown that never works, that it only causes industries that engage in obstructionism more pain. Whether it’s loss of consumer trust, producers losing faith in their trade association’s leadership, increased regulatory and legal pressure, damning media attention through whistleblowing exposés, or being dropped by major buyers of their products, the road of resistance is a rocky one. After all, there’s no worse strategy in a free market than producing a product no one wants to buy.

Time will tell whether the National Chicken Council makes the wise choice to embrace change and evolve their animal welfare standards; if not, it’s setting up its members for a game of chicken with their own customers.


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