A chicken in Karen Speake's grow houseAlana Semuels / The Atlantic

SEAFORD, Del.—There are lots of things a chicken probably doesn’t want: to be eaten alive by a cow, for instance. Or to be beheaded to demonstrate the famous, unflattering idiom. And if given a choice, a chicken would probably prefer to not end up on a dinner plate.

For Perdue Foods, putting chickens on dinner (or lunch, or even breakfast) plates across the country is the company’s entire business model. But Perdue can try to think more about what it is that chickens do want. And the company says that now, it is.

“We were pretty good at caring for chickens and taking care of what they need, but we haven’t necessarily been thinking about what they want,” Bruce Stewart-Brown, a senior vice president at Perdue, told me. In June, Perdue came up with a pledge. The 100-year-old, Maryland-based company said it would improve conditions—for both chickens and humans—in the 2,100 farms that it contracts with, where it raises 640 million birds a year.

The reforms have four parts: thinking about the wants and needs of animals, improving relations with the farmers that raise the chickens, being open to criticism of current policies, and continuing to advance its knowledge about animal care. “We can improve by implementing policies that go beyond meeting chickens’ basic needs,” the company said.

The announcement came a few years after an animal welfare group, Compassion in World Farming, spent months documenting conditions at a Perdue farm in North Carolina. The video showed chickens crammed into houses, laden down by their huge breasts, resting on chicken litter, their chests red and sore. The reaction was swift, with people around the world expressing horror at conditions on the farm, and questioning Perdue’s practices. (Nicholas Kristof, The New York Timesmost ardent defender of chickens, has written about abuses in the industry three times since 2014.)  

Perdue has said the videos did not reflect Perdue standards for raising chickens and that it’s now beginning to implement changes across farms that will improve conditions. Already, Perdue has stopped given chickens antibiotics unless they’re sick, and has them on a vegetarian diet. “We'd like to be the chicken's choice,” Stewart-Brown told me. “If I'm a chicken and I'm going to be raised by somebody, I want it to be Perdue.”

Stewart-Brown is a veterinarian who comes from a family of veterinarians. He has devoted a lot of time to trying to think like a chicken. Now, he’s mulling questions such as what texture chickens’ food should be, and if they’d like a little bit more light in their homes.

Perdue doesn’t actually raise chickens itself; it contracts that work out to a network of growers. The company drops off days-old chicks at farms across the country, and then picks up the birds when they’re ready for the processing plant. Drive around parts of Delaware and Maryland, and you’ll see trucks stacked with crates of birds heading to their doom—and America’s dinner plates.

Bruce Stewart-Brown next to a grow house “enhancement” (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Perdue wants to work with these farmers to make life better for chickens. As such, it’s asking farmers to agree to improvements on their farms, and then paying for upgrades. Stewart-Brown took me to a Perdue grower in Seaford, Delaware to show me some of these changes. We visited Karen Speake, who raises thousands of Cornish birds in two long growhouses with corrugated tin sides and tin roofs. Recently, Perdue paid $10,000 for Speake to have large, square windows installed throughout the chicken house to let in more natural light. Speake pulls down curtains over the windows at night, and dims the grow-house lights, so that chickens know it’s time to rest. The company also installed what Stewart-Brown calls “enhancements,” which are essentially crates and wooden ramps for chickens to frolic upon.

I was skeptical that adding windows was going to make life much better for a chicken. They are still stuck inside a building essentially eating and pooping until they die. But then Stewart-Brown and Speake covered up the windows in half of the chicken house, so I could see what it was like before. As they shrouded half of the room in darkness, the chickens on that side became clearly agitated and started to chirp loudly. The chickens on the light side of the house continued to run about, oblivious.

Chicken’s brains are small, even compared to other birds. But they still experience fear and have desires, Stewart Brown said. He told me there are a couple of ways to tell a happy chicken from an unhappy one. A happy chicken is one that moves around and is curious about the world around him. A happy chicken has strong legs and abrasion-free feet. An unhappy chicken has sores and weak legs. It lies about for the duration of its life and then dies. “The more time you spend with chickens, the more you know,” Stewart-Brown said.

Speake told me she used to lose 15 chickens a day out of the 40,000 she raises at a time, before she implemented these changes. Often, they died of heart attacks, perhaps related to the trauma of being moved from the hatchery to her farm within days of being born. Now, the mortality rate of her chickens has dropped by half, she said. Her chicken house used to be like a motel, she told me. Now, it’s like the Hilton. “You go the Hilton, you have the gym, the restaurant, a good place to sleep,” she told me. She prefers working in a grow house with windows, too, she said, since there’s more natural light for both humans and birds.

Stewart-Brown’s ideas about changing chicken houses came from organic farms, he told me. Perdue bought Coleman Natural, an organic chicken producer, in 2011, and executives started to visit the organic farms to see how they differed. At these farms, chickens can go outside and eat food with no animal by-products or genetically engineered grains. Organic chickens move around more than non-organic chickens. Their legs are stronger from all the exercise they get, which helps keep them healthier than chickens who have less room to roam.

Windows in the grow house let in more light (Alana Semuels / The Atlantic)

Still, the changes are slow going. Twelve percent of Perdue’s farms had windows when they announced the initiative; only 5 percent more will have them by the end of the year. That means hundreds of millions of chickens are still being raised in the dark and crowded houses that many activists and consumers loathe.

Part of the problem is that these changes, small as they are, are not cheap. After all, organic chickens cost more to raise than non-organic chickens do. One of the reasons chicken prices have fallen so much in the past half-century is because scientists have figured out how to raise more chickens in less space. Perdue can’t just give all its chickens a yard and organic feed, unless it also raises its prices, which could potentially lose a lot of consumers. People say that they care about the welfare of the animals that they eat. But according to one study, only about half of consumers are willing to pay more for their “ideal” chicken product. Stewart-Brown says he’s trying to find a balance, between improving life for chickens, and answering to bosses who worry about cost. It helps that Perdue is a privately held company, and doesn’t have to answer to shareholders.

A skeptic could see Perdue’s efforts as a marketing ploy. In one recent study, scientists put identical pieces of meat in front of subjects but labeled them differently. One label said the chicken was humanely raised, the other said the chicken was raised in a factory farm. The subjects said the meat raised on the factory farm was greasy and unpleasant, and ate less of it than they did the meat that the scientists told them was raised on the so-called humane farm. The experiment gives credence to the idea that humans want to believe their meat is raised humanely. If Perdue can convince customers that theirs is, people will buy more of its meat.

That reality raises the obvious question of whether or not this whole exercise really about figuring out what’s best for chickens, or figuring out how to make humans feel better about eating them. Either way, the result is that some chickens’ lives will improve, if only slightly. Already, the Perdue Foundation has set aside $250,000 to fund two master’s students and a Ph.D. student to look into animal behavior. One is looking at how to design structures for chickens to play on. Another is thinking about whether chickens would prefer to have different textures in their feed.

Perdue says it’s going to keep asking farmers, consumers, and maybe even the general public, about what else they think chickens want, beyond windows and jungle gyms. Stewart-Brown says he’s already trying to ask the chickens this very question, by observing their behavior, and noticing what seems to make them happy, and what makes them distressed. He can ask chickens how they’re doing, he says. Maybe, someday, they’ll tell him.

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