Earlier this year, Perdue, the country’s third largest chicken producer, introduced a line of "USDA Process Verified" chicken products bearing the claims "humanely raised" and "raised cage free" on the label. Unfortunately, this change in the label did not herald any actual initiative to treat chickens better. It was, rather, a cynical attempt to keep consumers (like their chickens) in the dark. Over the summer, under pressure from AWI, Perdue quietly removed the "humanely raised" designation on the label. "Cage free" - more technically true but equally deceptive under these circumstances - remains.
What, though, prompted Perdue to sing its own praises in the first place? Before adding "humanely raised" and "cage free" to its label, Perdue did nothing to distinguish itself from the lax standards widespread throughout the industry. The fact is, Perdue’s chickens were and still are raised in the same manner as most other industrially processed chickens.
Perdue claims that it complies with the guidelines of the National Chicken Council (NCC), a poultry industry group. These standards, however, would not be considered humane under any reasonable understanding of the term. Under NCC guidelines, tens of thousands of birds may be packed into windowless sheds without access to fresh air and sunlight. The guidelines permit chickens to spend their lives sitting in wet litter or without litter entirely, on floors of packed chicken feces and urine. They allow chickens to live in constant dim light, inducing a state of inactivity in which the animals do nothing but sit in dark, crowded filth, eat, and grow. (See the accompanying article, "Dark Meat: The Shady Business of Industrial Chicken.") Animal scientist Dr. Temple Grandin sums it up: "The National Chicken Council Animal Welfare Audit has a scoring system that is so lax that it allows plants or farms with really bad practices to pass."
Consequently, and contrary to what Perdue would have consumers believe, adherence to NCC standards signifies no heroic concession to humane care. NCC guidelines merely codify widespread industry practice - a practice that ignores the welfare of the animals. The NCC itself boasts that its standards are "utilized by companies with the vast majority of production in the industry." Perdue’s two largest competitors, Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride, both raise their chickens according to NCC standards, yet neither to date has claimed their birds are humanely raised. So far, Perdue is the only major chicken company that has attempted to make the audacious claim that adherence to NCC standards can be equated with humane treatment of chickens.
"Raised cage free" is a similarly hollow assertion meant to imply adherence to some "extra" level of care. Standard industry practice, however, does not call for cages when raising chickens for meat - but rather the above-mentioned crowded, dark, windowless sheds. Perdue’s new label thus seeks to do nothing more than slap a fresh coat of paint on business-as-usual cruelty, while exploiting consumers who seek more humane alternatives to factory-raised chicken.
Upon learning of the label’s release in February, AWI immediately demanded that Perdue remove it, on the grounds that it misled consumers. A national survey commissioned by AWI revealed that the vast majority of consumers feel that NCC standards fall well short of humane: 63% of those surveyed indicated that housing chickens in sheds with less than one square foot of space per bird was "totally unacceptable"; similarly, 69% found the practice of providing chickens no access to fresh air and sunlight "totally unacceptable"; 85% would expect chicken labeled "humanely raised" to have had access to natural sunlight and fresh air (Perdue’s chickens don’t); and 82% would expect chicken labeled "humanely raised" to have had enough space to stretch their wings and move freely (Perdue’s chickens don’t).
Adding to the subterfuge - Perdue’s label also prominently touts the "USDA Process Verified" seal of approval, right next to its (former) "humanely raised" and (still existing) "cage free" claims. The USDA Process Verified program is a voluntary, fee-based auditing service whereby the USDA verifies that producers are adhering to standards and processes that the producers themselves unilaterally develop. Producers - like Perdue - then use this "approval" as a marketing tool to imply adherence to some USDA standard, when in fact USDA merely signs off on whether the producer adheres to its own set of rules. Perdue, however, takes it one step farther. By placing a big "USDA Process Verified" logo next to its "humanely raised" and "cage free" claims, Perdue clearly intended for consumers to think USDA had objectively determined that its standards were humane.
Thanks to AWI, Perdue appears to be quietly withdrawing the "humanely raised" claim but is still misleading consumers with the words "raised cage free" on the label. Perdue’s self-satisfied rebranding effort - and USDA acquiescence - serve to highlight both the lack of government oversight preventing consumer deception in labeling, and the value of third party certification systems such as AWI’s own "Animal Welfare Approved" program to provide consumers with objective assurance that what’s under the label really did come from an animal who was humanely raised.