Major changes are afoot when it comes to how the poultry industry conducts its business. Over the last several months, some of the industry’s largest customers — companies like Burger King, Subway and more — have demanded that their chicken suppliers overhaul the way they breed, house and slaughter animals.
As it turns out, these changes could not come soon enough.
Today, The Humane Society of the United States released details of a multi-state undercover investigation into Pilgrim’s Pride — the country’s second-largest chicken producer, and one of the few large publicly held poultry providers.
From a farm owner in Georgia beating animals with a metal rod to chickens in a Texas slaughterhouse being viciously punched during their final moments, the abuse documented was nothing less than horrifying.
While the actions of these bad apples are clearly unacceptable, it’s the system that’s rotten.
In Georgia, our undercover investigator spent just four days documenting what goes on at Plainview Farm — a Pilgrim’s Pride contractor. In addition to the facility’s owner beating animals, birds were found dead and crippled, with those alive unable to reach food or water or even move more than a few steps.
This problem is pervasive throughout the poultry sector, where animals’ well-being has been subjugated beneath companies’ desire to produce freakishly large birds in as little time as possible. The way chickens grow today is akin to a 2-month-old human baby weighing a whopping 660 pounds. And because chickens are slaughtered at only a few weeks old, their bodies are still young and fragile while all those pounds are being packed on. As a result, their legs often give out. They can barely move. They suffer foot and joint problems. They have heart attacks, and their lungs fail.
These are the types of problems documented in Georgia that are common industrywide — and it doesn’t end once the birds leave the farm.
In Texas, our undercover investigation of a Pilgrim’s Pride-owned slaughterhouse documented birds being punched during their final moments and abused in other ways. Because these birds’ legs are so weak by the time they reach slaughter, when workers snap their legs into the tight-fitting metal shackles that hang them upside down on the line, the animals endure a great deal of pain. In Texas, one worker maliciously and repeatedly shackled and unshackled a bird — seemingly for no reason other than to cause the animal additional distress in her final moments. Imagine having broken or otherwise injured wrists handcuffed tightly over and over and over again; it’s torture, plain and simple.
Moreover, despite Pilgrim’s website claiming that its “employees who handle live birds are required to complete animal-welfare training,” the undercover investigator was provided zero animal welfare training during a full week of orientation; animal welfare was never even mentioned.
So the abuse we documented, though appalling, was not surprising. Workers who are untrained in how to properly care for live animals are tasked with handling living, squawking, pecking, flapping and frenzied birds all day long. It’s a recipe for disaster.
It’s also a recipe for consumer outcry. With companies now clamoring to provide stronger assurances to consumers that the animals used in their enterprises are afforded decent care, considering what goes on behind the closed doors of the poultry industry, it makes sense that major brands are demanding reform.
In addition to Burger King and Subway, dozens more of the largest poultry buyers — Aramark, Sodexo, Chipotle, Jack in the Box and others — have recently demanded better breeding methods to avoid the extreme animal welfare problems associated with growing baby birds well beyond their natural limits. They’ve demanded better living conditions that include access to simple things like natural light. And they’ve demanded a better slaughter system that ensures workers never even have access to — let alone have to handle — live birds.
Some producers are responding. Perdue announced last year that it will institute better slaughter methods across the board, and is taking other actions to understand and mitigate the main sources of animal suffering in their business. Wayne Farms, another major producer, announced recently that it will meet the animal welfare requirements implemented by Burger King and others with a new line of products produced under better animal welfare conditions.
The question now is: will other poultry producers, like Pilgrim’s Pride, also listen to their customers? Or will they balk at the demands for better treatment and insist upon maintaining the status quo? After all, the unfortunate reality of our food supply — or any industry, for that matter — is that for every company which adapts to changes in how its customers want it to conduct business, there are others which refuse to move. And considering what goes on in the poultry sector — as documented in Texas and Georgia — animals and consumers alike can’t afford for the industry to turn this issue into a game of chicken.
Matthew Prescott is senior director of corporate policy for The Humane Society of the United States and author of Food is the Solution: What to Eat to Save the World, forthcoming Spring 2018 from Flatiron Books.