Henry Spira posthumously wins long fight with the late Frank Perdue after Perdue son throws in the towel
SALISBURY, Maryland––Perdue Farms, a $6 billion-a-year pioneer of factory-style chicken farming and now the fourth largest chicken producer in the U.S., on June 27, 2016 announced a four-point program to improve chicken welfare. The Perdue announcement, while falling far short of all that animal advocates could ask for, was acclaimed in advance of release by Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle and Compassion In World Farming executive director Leah Garces.
How it started
Coalition for Nonviolent Food founder Henry Spira, 1926-1998, always did believe Perdue Farms would eventually lead the way to humane reform of factory-style chicken production.
That’s why Spira in 1987 targeted then-Perdue Farms president Frank Perdue in his first major campaign on behalf of factory-farmed animals. Spira believed that Frank Perdue’s reputation for vanity, plus his personal identification with his company––he featured himself in Perdue Farms television commercials–– might lead Perdue to try to be seen as a leader in animal welfare.
Equally important, Spira believed that Frank Perdue could, with a single order, change the way Perdue Farms operated. Most other major chicken producers would have to win approval for changes through large corporate boards of directors, few if any of whom had Frank Perdue’s personal experience in raising and handling chickens.
The next generation
Twenty-seven years later, eighteen years after Spira’s death, Spira seems to have been right––but a generation late, as Frank Perdue’s son Jim Perdue made the June 27, 2016 announcement.
The Perdue announcement was actually among the release of a new corporate document titled 2016 and Beyond: Next Generation of Perdue Commitments to Animal Care. The document was developed, an accompanying media release said, “with input from stakeholders such as farmers, academics and leaders of animal advocate organizations who were invited by Perdue” to make recommendations.
Bought Niman Ranch
Said Perdue senior vice president Bruce Stewart-Brown, DVM, “Over the past five years, we’ve been exposed to and learned some husbandry techniques associated with organic production. And, through the brands that have recently joined our company,” notably Niman Ranch, an organic pig grower acquired in 2015, “we’ve been able to learn from some of the pioneers of a more holistic approach to animal well-being.”
Explained the Perdue Farms media release, “Based on the ‘Five Freedoms,’ an internationally recognized standard for animal husbandry, Perdue’s commitment document lays out where the company is today on each of the five aspects as well as future goals.
First articulated in 1967 by the Farm Animal Welfare Advisory Committee, formed by the British government in response to the 1964 Ruth Harrison book Animal Machines, the “Five Freedoms” are:
• Freedom from hunger and thirst: by ready access to fresh water and a diet to maintain full health and vigor.
• Freedom from discomfort: by providing an appropriate environment including shelter and a comfortable resting area.
• Freedom from pain, injury and disease: by prevention or rapid diagnosis and treatment.
• Freedom from fear and distress: by ensuring conditions and treatment which avoid mental suffering.
• Freedom to express normal behavior: by providing sufficient space, proper facilities and company of animals own kind.
The one tangible change to which Perdue committed is not actually mentioned in the “Five Freedoms,” albeit perhaps implied by the definitions of several of them.
Said the Perdue media release, “The majority of chickens today are raised in fully enclosed barns without natural light. Perdue is committed to retrofitting 200 chicken houses with windows by the end of 2016 to compare bird health and activity to enclosed housing.”
More significant than just being “committed,” Perdue is committing money to the project.
Explained Tom Philpott in the June 27, 2016 edition of Mother Jones, “Normally, when a big chicken company decides it wants to change something about the enormous barns where its birds are grown, it merely changes the terms of its contracts, forcing farmers to upgrade their facilities [at their own expense] or risk losing their market. In this case, Perdue will pick up the cost of retro-fitting the 200 pilot houses, a company spokeswoman told me. As the windows program expands, the company says it will continue to pick up at least part of the cost.”
Continued the Perdue Farms media release, “Appreciating that chickens spend most of their time in the care of farmers, the [Perdue] plan stresses improved relationships with farmers. This includes creating an open dialogue about best practices in animal care, considering the farmer’s well-being and connecting animal care to pay and incentives.
Open to criticism
“The plan also calls for Perdue to be open to criticism of its current policies and procedures when deserved,” an apparent reference to Frank Perdue’s dismissive non-responses to Spira, “share information about animal care initiatives, and proactively engage with a wide variety of animal welfare stakeholders, including advocates, academics and animal care experts.
“The fourth part of the plan,” the Perdue media release said, “commits to ongoing learning and advancements in the company’s animal care programs to ensure the health and well-being of its birds through next-generation initiatives. This commitment will be driven by Perdue’s active Animal Care Council, which has been in place for more than 15 years.”
Bales of hay
Elaborated Stewart-Brown, “From lessons learned from organic chicken houses, it’s clear that there can be a general health benefit with increased activity—and that is a big focus of our plan.”
Besides adding windows to chicken barns, Stewart-Brown said Perdue Farms would be “studying the role of enrichments such as perches and bales of hay to encourage activity. Our goal is to double the activity of our chickens in the next three years.”
Subsidiaries scrapped antibiotics
Except for Niman Ranch, the organic producers and “brands that have recently joined our company” that Stewart-Brown mentioned evolved in-house, after a holding company, FPP Family Investments, Inc., owned by the Perdue family and named by Frank P. Perdue’s initials, was formed in 2010 to manage Perdue Farms and subsidiaries including the feed growing company Perdue AgriBusiness, the management company FPP Business Services, and Coleman Natural Foods
Perdue Farms subsidiaries also include Heritage Breeders, LLC; Venture Milling, another feed producer; Perdue Fats and Proteins, LLC, which sells pet and animal feed ingredients; Perdue BioEnergy, LLC, which appears to be engaged chiefly in producing biogas from chicken manure; and Perdue AgriRecycle, a company that turns poultry litter into organic fertilizer.
Perdue Farms in 2007 introduced the Harvestland brand, promoting chickens grown without the use of antibiotics also used in human medicine, then made Harvestland and two other Perdue brands, Simply Smart and Perfect Portions, entirely antibiotic-free.
Promised more to HSUS
Wrote Humane Society of the U.S. president Wayne Pacelle in the June 26, 2016 installment of his blog Humane Nation, “According to its new policy, which came after a series of meetings we had with the company, Perdue will:
- Switch all its slaughterhouses away from shackling live animals and toward controlled atmosphere stunning — a method of slaughter long recognized by scientists and advocates alike as being far less cruel;
- Start installing windows to provide birds natural light and add enrichment (like hay bales and perches);
- Start testing slower-growing birds (typical growth occurs so fast that it causes immense suffering); and
- Start providing more space per bird.
“We’ll continue to work with Perdue toward ensuring the company adds timelines for accomplishing these important steps,” Pacelle pledged, recalling that “HSUS previously sued Perdue for false labeling around animal welfare claims.”
The lawsuit, filed in New Jersey and Florida in 2010, was settled after Perdue agreed to remove a “Humanely Raised” label claim from Harvestland chicken packaging.
Finished Pacelle, “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.”
Allowed ethologist Marc Bekoff, “Perdue’s move is a move in the right direction. It indicates that more and more people are recognizing chickens (and other animals) as sentient beings who care about what happens to them. Not only do they suffer immeasurable and egregious harms and death on their way to human mouths, but they also can experience positive emotions. Yes, birds can be happy! So, it’s possible that some of the 676 million chickens whom Perdue prepares for human consumption each year will have happier lives. However, a ‘happier life’ is not necessarily a ‘good life.’
“We should praise Perdue,” Bekoff said in a blog for Psychology Today, “but not go overboard in our agreement with the little they’re doing, and, at the same time, ask for more, much more. We should be very cautious and make it clear that what they are doing is appreciated, but it’s not an acceptable endpoint. So, for example, why don’t they and other companies work toward phasing out the use of chickens for unnecessary meals? No one has to eat chickens.”
The Perdue document 2016 and Beyond: Next Generation of Perdue Commitments to Animal Care was published six weeks after Perdue Farms came under intensive public criticism for alleged abuses of workers’ rights.
Recalled USA Today reporter Aamer Madhani, “Earlier [in May 2016], the social justice group Oxfam America published a report alleging that workers at Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms routinely deny bathroom breaks to workers at the largest American poultry producers’ processing plants, leading some workers to even wear diapers on the line.
“Three of the companies—Tyson’s, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Perdue—said they were reviewing the allegations from anonymous workers cited in the Oxfam report but had yet to turn up any evidence confirming that they are true.”
Allegations of animal abuse
The alleged worker rights violations cited by Oxfam were intertwined with allegations of animal abuse, not explicitly at Perdue Farms facilities, but echoing earlier allegations, amplified by Spira, that were.
Explained Madhani, “Last month, two West Virginia chicken farmers who are contracted with Pilgrim’s Pride spoke out in a video produced by the group Compassion in World Farming, questioning whether demands placed on contract farmers by the nation’s biggest poultry companies is leading to birds being raised in gruesome conditions.
Perdue switched from eggs to meat
Perdue Farms founder Arthur Perdue started an egg farm in 1920, the same year that his son Frank Perdue was born. After leukosis killed their 2,000 leghorns in the early 1940s, they switched to raising broiler hens, began developing factory-style protection methods, and prospered during the World War II meat shortage.
Frank Perdue took over the $6 million a year business in 1952. Annual revenues were up to $56 million in 1970, when Perdue introduced the Perdue Farms brand name to supermarkets, appearing in approximately 200 TV commercials during the next 24 years to promote it. By 1991 Perdue Farms was the third largest poultry firm in the U.S., worth $1.2 billion a year––and was flamboyantly skirmishing with Spira.
Spira, who founded Animal Rights International in 1976, had in 1980 convinced the cosmetics makers Avon and Revlon to quit animal testing. Other cosmetics firms followed.
Aware that further progress could come only when makers and regulators of products with more stringent safety standards were satisfied that non-animal tests were better, Spira next approached the consumer chemical products giant Procter & Gamble.
Procter & Gamble in 1984 agreed to phase out animal testing as rapidly as possible, and agreed to fund the development of alternatives. Since then Procter & Gamble has spent more than $350 million to develop and win regulatory approval for more than 50 alternatives to animal tests.
Spira then formed the Coalition for Nonviolent Food to focus on improving farmed animals’ lives and promoting vegetarianism. He began by asking Frank Perdue in April 1987 to lead the way in reducing suffering to poultry in factory farming.
After Perdue ignored repeated requests from Spira, Spira in October 1989 began exposing conditions at Perdue Farms in full-page New York Times advertisements, often also placed in other media, including the University of Maryland newspaper The Diamondback, that Spira believed would attract Frank Perdue’s attention.
The P. word
The most famous of Spira’s ads, entitled “The P. Word,” noted Perdue’s appointment to the University of Maryland Board of Regents.
“There’s a word for someone who does bad stuff for money,” the ad proclaimed. “Perdue.”
The ad noted that, “In 1986 Perdue admitted to the President’s Commission on Organized Crime that when his workers tried to organize, he went to New York’s Gambino crime family to get their help. National Public Radio reported that women were urinating on the [Perdue] workline because they were afraid to leave it.”
Recalled Spira biographer Peter Singer, “The advertisement continued in that vein, highlighting Perdue’s false advertising, his conviction for polluting Virginia’s waterways, his abuse of animals, and his evasion of a manslaughter charge after he killed someone when speeding the wrong way up a one-way road.”
Chicken in a condom
A later Spira ad, targeting sanitation issues with factory-farmed chickens, depicted a Perdue chicken stuffed into an oversized condom.
Spira, who died seven years before Frank Perdue, never won any concessions from Perdue Farms during his lifetime, but after Frank Perdue’s death in 2005, at age 84, the Spira ads were cited in many Perdue obituaries.