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Fox in the Henhouse: Will Incoming EPA Chief Scott Pruitt Endanger Recent Progress in Humane Farming?

EPA's boss, Scott Pruitt, sought as Oklahoma AG special rights for corporate and foreign-owned factory farms

Those who say that we ordinary people can’t have any effect on today’s corporate behemoths should check out two breakthroughs last year by a group long derided by the establishment as somewhere between wacko and criminal: animal rights activists. Members of groups like the Humane Society are demonized, outlawed, sued and jailed by agribusiness interests for persisting in trying to make life even slightly less awful for animals captured in America’s industrial food system. But 2016 was a good year for those groups — and for the animals.

Let’s look at Perdue Farms. Perdue is a $6 billion poultry giant; it’s the fourth largest in the U.S., producing 676 million chickens in 2015. It has been a major pusher of the industry line that there’s nothing wrong or cruel about breeding birds with breasts so heavy that they can’t stand or keeping chickens jammed so tightly in cages that they can’t spread their wings — or denying them access to the outdoors or even sunlight. But Jim Perdue, who is the grandson of the founder and now the CEO, was having trouble reconciling his corporation’s rhetoric with hard reality. After listening to critics, he began discussing alternatives with the animal rights group Compassion in World Farming.

Then on July 1 Perdue announced a wholesale shift in the company’s approach to handling the birds, including providing them with lots of sunlight; giving them space to run, flap wings and play; breeding smaller, healthier birds; and using more humane slaughter methods. Also, Perdue will compensate growers not just to cut costs but also for enhancing the birds’ quality of life. One of the industry rationales for cruelty is that kindness raises prices and cuts profits. But Perdue is finding that healthier birds actually reduce costs, and that more humane practices attract supermarkets, restaurants and families to Perdue’s products. Success for Perdue could shift the whole miserable industry.

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