Perdue’s Chicken Labels — For the Birds

In a February press release, poultry giant Perdue announced its latest breakthrough in corporate doublespeak: the company’s birds will now carry a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) “process verified” seal of approval, spending your hard-earned tax dollars to certify the company’s “humane” practices in factory farm poultry production.

How does USDA select criteria for this humane standard? It doesn’t. Instead, it allows poultry titans to choose their own standards. So, Perdue’s were developed by, you guessed it, Perdue and its industry trade association, the National Chicken Council.

Not surprisingly, these standards ignore the recommendations of independent nonprofits like the Animal Welfare Institute. AWI’s standards appear to be a tad too humane for Perdue’s liking.

Not surprisingly, the National Chicken Council’s standards for “humane treatment” fail to require even the most basic conditions of natural life. For example, they allow debeaking, the amputation of the tip of birds’ beaks, a practice that the British Farm Animal Welfare Council nearly 20 years ago called “a serious welfare insult to the hen…that should not be necessary in a well-managed system where the hens’ requirements are fully met.” The Council also fails to require access to the outdoors and to natural daylight. Their standard also permits the use of antibiotics to promote growth, even in birds with no illness that would require use of the drugs.

Watered-down labeling is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Perdue’s dubious marketing. The company likes to portray its operations as small, independent farm “families,” but a recent lawsuit contends that company operations have so polluted the Chesapeake Bay that areas of that waterway are now hopelessly ravaged “dead zones.” Scott Edwards of the national Waterkeeper Alliance, a party to the lawsuit against Perdue told the Washington Post, “The notion of the family farm is long gone. These are factories. . . . They produce waste, they produce pollutants, they need to be regulated for environmental compliance.”

Consumers looking for truth-in-labeling don’t get much help from programs like the USDA’s corporate marketing shams. Better is the Consumers Union “Greener Choices” guide, which rates labels on food (and cosmetics, cleaning supplies, and other products) as meaningful or not based on whether labeling organizations are independent and free from conflict of interest, and whether their standards are consistent, transparent and developed with broad public input.

Because, as a colleague of ours once noted, “A person shouldn’t need a pseudo PhD in chicken production and marketing claims to figure out how their chicken was raised!”