Awareness is at an all-time high, in every sense. Some 94% of Americans now declare themselves opposed to the abuse of factory-farmed animals, particularly chickens. And that’s even without exposure to the latest astonishing scientific findings about animal, even chicken, cognition.
After decades of focus on more exotic creatures such as dolphins and elephants, scientists are learning that chickens are far savvier than previously understood, comparable to, or more advanced in some cases than, mammals. Chickens have better eyesight than humans, for instance, seeing more colors, including infrared. They hear better, too. They are even born with smarts. Five-day old chicks can perform basic arithmetic operations: they know which pile of seeds is bigger and hatchlings can account for as many as five objects. Roosters have specialized vocalizations—we call them, names—for different predators, whether hawks or raccoons. They display Machiavellian intelligence, too, as when leading competitors astray or tricking females into believing they have found some great tidbits (avian equivalent to etchings) behind a bush over there.
Scientific discovery and animal welfare rarely join forces in transforming how we think about and treat animals but 2016 may be a tipping point.
Since July 2015, a record number of producers, distributors and food suppliers have signed on to improve the way they handle and process both egg-laying and broiler chickens. That includes McDonald’s, Walmart and Costco which was subjected to a thorough celebrity (Brad Pitt! Ryan Gosling!) drubbing for its treatment of fowls.
The top 25 grocery chains now have timelines for when consumers can assume farmed chickens have been raised cage-free with enough space, at least to stretch their wings. As mentioned, it’s a start, not yet a complete transformation. The United States still lags far behind much of Europe in farm food practices that incorporate good welfare. In a strange twist of logic, farmed animals are excluded from animal protection laws so that there are rules governing the humane care and disposal of lab rats, for instance, but not lambs, chicks or cows.
It matters that the food industry itself is beginning to take responsibility, largely driven by consumer expectations. The five largest food service companies in the U.S. have committed to implementing a variety of improvements by 2024, from developing healthier breeds (as opposed to ones that are all breast and can’t even stand) and allowing chickens to live 12 weeks before slaughter (six weeks is currently the standard; the life span of chickens is naturally two years) to providing space for foraging with access to hay bales and using more effective stunning techniques before slaughter. Starbucks is on board, too.
Here’s a hopeful sign of the times. In 2010 the Humane Society of the United States filed a class action lawsuit against Perdue Farms, the fourth largest chicken producer in the country on behalf of consumers misled by labels that said the corporation’s chickens were ”humanely raised” in spite of brutal procedures such as extreme temperatures, constant light to prevent sleep and shackling upside down on the conveyor to execution. Then in 2016 Perdue joined the Humane Society in announcing a series of reforms, including breeding slower-growth chickens, providing natural light through windows, perches and more space.
“We’re now calling on all other major poultry producers—including Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Sanderson Farms—to follow Perdue’s lead and take steps to address these key issues. Change for the birds cannot come soon enough,” wrote Wayne Pacelle, president of The Humane Society on his blog in June.
Also in June, the USDA proposed new standards for animal products labeled organic that would ban such cruel practices as beak trimming and would require bigger barns and more outdoor space. There has been pushback that the allotted space is hardly sufficient (one square foot inside, and two square feet of pasture that may be half concrete), while the National Chicken Council representing Tysons as well as Perdue complain that the definition of outdoors should not have to include actual dirt. Mingy porches are currently a common notional excuse for the big outdoors.
The ASPCA is trying to help customers buy smarter by formulating a new label guide providing some clarity to the boggling array of claims that sellers make about humane treatment and organic quality in meat, egg and dairy products. And in November, Massachusetts passed a ballot measure against the extreme confinement of chickens; California passed similar regulations in 2015 and other states are poised to follow suit.
Will the future stay bright? The new head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, is awaiting confirmation. The former Governor of Georgia (2003-2011) is no relation to Frank Perdue founder of the broiler chicken farm, but the former fertilizer salesman’s record tends towards supporting agribusiness over animal welfare. In 2009, he signed a bill blocking regulations that would outlaw animal cruelty on factory farms and he has backed Monsanto, Dow, and Dupont, the names we associate with chemicals in food.
Also of concern is the growing Right to Farm movement that bars restrictions on farmers when it comes to how they handle and render livestock for production. Originally intended to protect farmers from nuisance lawsuits, the movement has morphed into a tool of agribusiness masquerading as a boon to the family farmer. Many Right to Farm advocates are actually contract suppliers to major industrial farms, but some are also farmers who just want to do things their own way. Right to Farm legislation exists in all 50 states but new regulations intended to protect cruel practices have been shot down in Indiana and Nebraska, and most recently Oklahoma. But the movement is gaining traction as is Protect the Harvest claiming that animal rights groups pose a threat to the American way of farming.
Americans eat more chickens than anyone else in the world. We don’t have to change our diet in order to understand the importance of handling the animals we do eat in a sustainable, morally responsible and more truly American way. Hopefully, the years to come will continue moving ahead on the right track.
March 21, 2017