Perdue bringing organic principles into plants

Salisbury-based Perdue Farms is investing more than $15 million at its Milford facility — the nation’s largest organic poultry plant — for a higher-welfare “controlled-atmospheric stunning system” plus a live-bird handling process that will be the first of its kind.

Perdue is the only major poultry company in the country to commit to converting 100 percent of its plants to an atmospheric stunning system, instead of electrical stunning, to eliminate the process of shackling conscious birds.

The company said the move, which has been lauded by animal rights and animal welfare advocates, positions it to meet the higher broiler welfare standards promised by nearly 70 food retailers and restaurant companies nationwide.

Most U.S. poultry plants use electricity, a reversible system from the 1960s, to render animals insensible to pain before processing. Employees shackle live birds upside down while they’re still conscious, after which an electrical field stuns them.

CAS, on the other hand, is an irreversible system that uses increasing levels of carbon dioxide to calm and then sedate the chickens before bringing about an irreversible loss of consciousness prior to processing.

Since birds are stunned before handling, no bird is upside-down while conscious.

Perdue believes this improves poultry welfare and also creates a better working environment for employees.

“Since implementing the CAS system, we’re seeing measurable poultry welfare improvements throughout the process as well as improvements in product quality,” said Dr. Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue’s Senior Vice President of Food Safety, Quality and Live Production. “Our technology uses both carbon dioxide and oxygen in the mix, which creates less stress on the birds as they go through the chambers.

“The difference is night and day,” Stewart-Brown said.

Despite Perdue’s assessment of how the system has changed operations for the better, the American Association of Avian Pathologists and the American College of Poultry Veterinarians maintains that both systems can have adverse implications, but are both acceptable.

“It is the position of the AAAP and the ACPV that reversible and irreversible stunning systems are humane and acceptable methods for stunning of poultry when properly applied, maintained and monitored. We recommend continued research on stunning physiology and methods to improve and refine stunning procedures in commercial poultry,” the associations stated on their website.

Perdue said it will continue the gradual conversion of the rest of its harvest plants to CAS, with the next installation planned for 2019.

In 2016, Perdue laid out an extensive program to advance animal care. These changes helped Perdue achieve the second-highest level in the Business Benchmark on Farm Animal Welfare. Perdue Farms was recognized for making animal welfare integral to its business strategies and placed among the top 15 percent of more than 100 global food companies. It also was one of only three U.S. poultry or meat companies to achieve Tier 2 or higher.

In the second phase of the CAS process, covered trucks will transport the birds prior to processing in redesigned crates to a fully enclosed, temperature-controlled, de-stressing area called the “lairage” area.

The transport crates are then transferred to the CAS system so the birds stay calm and are never handled when conscious. This new process, the first of its kind in the U.S., will be fully operational in fall 2018.

“We’ve been working very hard the last few years to improve the conditions under which our animals are raised,” said Perdue Farms Chairman Jim Perdue. “The Business Benchmark aligns with our vision to be the most-trusted name in premium protein, and provides independent, third-party recognition of our progress. We share a common goal in improving farm animal welfare.”

In 2016, Perdue announced its “Commitments to Animal Care,” a comprehensive program to accelerate advancements in how it raises chickens, including increased activity, the study of higher welfare breeds and moving to controlled atmosphere stunning.

The company followed up a year later with its second annual global animal care summit and the release of a progress report and goals.

Perdue has opted for no-antibiotics-ever practices in the United States and does not use close-confinement crates in any of its programs.

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