|A new Perdue chicken house with plenty of light |
and enrichments. (NPR photo by Dan Charles)
The chickens will still be raised in the long barns typical of the industry, but Perdue added plenty of windows so the hens can get more light, as well as wooden boxes to hide in, hay bales to perch on, and wooden pallet ramps to play on. CWF Executive Director Leah Garces told Charles that the windows made a big difference, and that the chickens were "running around, climbing on things, pecking, perching."
Perdue isn't just making the changes for chickens' happiness. Company Chairman Jim Perdue says the company learned that organic chickens, which have more room to run around, have higher quality meat. "Activity is the key," he told Charles. And, Perdue is responding to pressure from big corporate customers. Major institutional food-service companies such as Aramark and Compass say that by 2024 they'll only buy chickens raised and killed according to new rules set forth by the Global Animal Partnership. "That means, in addition to natural light in chicken houses, a new slaughtering process that uses gas to make the birds unconscious before they're killed," Charles reports. "This would replace electrical stunning, in which the birds are hung by their feet on a kind of conveyor belt and their heads come into contact with electrically charged water."
Perdue is working toward satisfying almost all of GAP's standards, but is still researching how to fulfill the most difficult one: A demand that poultry producers use slower-growing breeds instead of the fast-growing hybrids such as Cobbs or Cornish Crosses that are typically used by large-scale operations. Those hybrids tend to have more health problems than heritage breeds and also wouldn't be able to run around and enjoy chicken life on the hay bales in the new Perdue houses. But slower-growing chickens cost more to raise and look different, so grocery store shoppers will have to pay more for smaller chickens with more dark meat.