Soup-To-Nuts Podcast: Perdue Farms’ embraces transparency to improve animal welfare

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: Getty/	sansubba
Source: Getty/ sansubba

Related tags Soup-To-Nuts Podcast Perdue Farms Poultry Animal welfare

After Perdue Farms received unsolicited but ultimately what it characterized as “fair” criticism for its approach to animal care years ago, the protein producer began inviting annually animal welfare advocates, farmers, academics and stakeholders from across the value chain to visit its farms to share concerns, ask questions and offer feedback after learning how the company currently approaches its business, how the broader landscape is changing and what the future may hold.

During Perdue’s eighth Animal Care Summit this fall in Salisbury, Md., the company closely examined and reaffirmed its commitment to “No Antibiotics Ever,” an initiative that it began phasing in 2002 when it stopped using antibiotics for growth promotion and which it continued to expand over the next 15 years until, as of September, it claims 100% of its chickens are ‘No Antibiotics Ever.’

In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast​, Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue’s senior vice president of technical services and innovation and a veterinarian who helps guide the company’s approach to animal care, shares why Perdue’s “No Antibiotics Ever” initiative is just as important today as it was 20 years ago, how it has evolved and how else the company is improving the welfare of its chickens – be it through improved housing, added enrichment, the use of RFID bands to track free-range birds or efforts such as on-farm hatching and behavioral research to reduce animal stress.

[Editor’s note: Never miss an episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts Podcast – subscribe​ today.]

‘It’s not inappropriate to question’ animal care standards

Grounded in the idea of continuous improvement that comes from increased transparency and open minds, Stewart-Brown says Perdue’s annual Animal Care Summit isn’t about self-congratulating, but rather creating an open dialogue to share successes, identify areas of improvement, brainstorm advancements and generate accountability.

“Years ago, we were criticized a little bit for our approach to animal care, and … as we sat down and looked at the criticism, we thought … some of it is actually fair. It is not inappropriate to question these things,” or to have an open mind about adopting new approaches or explaining fully why the company does certain practices, he said.

With that realization, Stewart-Brown said, the company opened its doors to hear “honest” questions and concerns and to brainstorm potentially better ways to care for animals.

Over the years, the summit has become larger and more formal so that now every year the company identifies at the start of the year 10 initiatives it wants to advance and then, at the summit, it shares its progress to keep an open dialogue.

The need for and evolution of Perdue’s ‘No Antibiotics Ever’ initiative

Long before Perdue began hosting its annual summit, it held monthly meetings to review consumer questions and concerns shared via a 1-800 number printed on its packaging. It was at one of these meetings in 2002 that Stewart-Brown says Perdue realized it needed to proactively address concerns about the use of antibiotics.

Stewart-Brown explains there are typically four ways in which chicken companies use antibiotics: in the egg to reduce bacterial infection, in the feed to promote growth and disease prevention, to reduce a specific protozoa that chickens get and to treat sick animals.

After realizing the “only [use] we wanted to leave on the table would be the treatment of sick animals,” Stewart-Brown said the company set about systemically eliminating the need for the other uses – a massive project that took years to phase in as it required the company to rethink every aspect of animal care – from feed to housing and more.

Perdue’s approach to antibiotics still allows for their use to treat sick animals, as Stewart-Brown noted. In these cases, he explains the animals are sold through the brand’s lines that do not carry the No Antibiotic Ever claim.

Aligning with the Better Chicken Commitment

Phasing out the routine use of antibiotics and still raising healthy chickens required Perdue to rethink how it houses and cares for its flocks, which in turn allowed the company to commit to providing customers a sustainable supply of chicken that meets all 2024 animal welfare criteria outlined in the Better Chicken Commitment​.

Stewart-Brown explains how Perdue’s values align with Better Chicken Commitment components, including around controlled atmosphere stunning, enriched environments and raising breeds associated with improved welfare.

Of these, the discussion around which breed to raise is the most controversial, according to Stewart-Brown, as different breeds have pros and cons, require different types of care and different levels of financial investment.

As such, Stewart-Brown said Perdue is carefully studying the implications of raising different types of chickens. He explained that at this year’s summit, the company shared results from a recent 26-flock trial in which farmers raised the current commercial breed compared to a Better Chicken Commitment compliance slower growing breed.

As with any study, the results don’t always align with what the company needs or what the consumer wants. But Stewart-Brown said Perdue is committed to ongoing research and innovation, which sometimes leads to the creation of new products or sub-brands and sometimes doesn’t.

As part of Perdue’s research into the full implications of raising slow-growing chickens is the impact of those breeds and different practices associated with them on the environment. To that end, Stewart-Brown said the company is undertaking a proper lifecycle analysis to fully understand the sustainability impact.

Perdue raises the bar for housing with vertical perches

Other initiatives that Perdue shared at its Summit, which could guide other industry players, include a shift to on-farm hatcheries, which Stewart-Brown says reduces the stress on chicks compared to when they are hatched elsewhere and then transported to the main farm.

 He also shared how the company is exploring new housing enrichment, such as vertical opportunities that allow chickens to move off the main floor – effectively increasing their living space as well as providing entertainment and a chance to express natural behaviors.

Ultimately, Stewart-Brown reiterated, all of the initiatives that Perdue shared at its summit and is testing or instituting require an open-mind and attitude as well as a recognition that the right way may not be the easy way, but as Perdue’s motto goes, is the Perdue way.

 

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