Poultry Industry Plays Chicken with Consumers

01/26/2017 02:37 pm ET

Chipotle Mexican Grill recently announced a series of sweeping reforms in how its chicken suppliers must breed, raise and slaughter birds. It’s important progress around an issue that consumers increasingly care deeply about, and represents just the latest in a major shift in how we farm and eat in America.

Specifically, Chipotle is mandating that its chicken suppliers follow the standards set forth by Global Animal Partnership—an organization that sets animal welfare standards and then certifies farms under those standards—when it comes to breeds of birds it uses and providing improved living environments; it’s also requiring that suppliers replace inhumane slaughter methods with a more modern system.

These are among the most important issues facing chickens, who make up more than 90 percent of the animals we eat (excluding fish). While some family farmers raise heritage-breed birds on pasture, the vast majority of chickens come from factory farms where they’re bred to grow so large so fast they suffer crippling leg deformities and heart attacks (because their legs and organs can’t keep up with their enormous size). They live cramped together in barren, dark environments—which is no way to house social, intelligent animals. And they’re killed using a system that’s riddled with cruelty from start to finish, including being forced upside down into metal shackles while fully conscious.

The Humane Society of the United States and other animal protection organizations have been helping fix these problems. And just in the last few months, industry leaders like foodservice companies Compass Group, Sodexo, Aramark, Panera Bread, Starbucks and others have announced policies nearly identical to Chipotle’s.

At the same time, the chicken industry seems to have its head buried in the sand. The industry’s trade association recently released a response to these concerns, attempting to convince companies and consumers that the concerns being tackled by Chipotle and so many others are invalid. But it lacks all marks of serious science: it’s neither published nor peer-reviewed, doesn't disclose its underlying data or methods and doesn’t even disclose the authors. And to top it off, it was produced by a major agribusiness drug company with an interest in maintaining the status quo around how factory farm chickens are produced.

The whole thing smacks of those infamous tobacco industry reports that attempted to convince doctors and consumers that cigarettes are healthy.

It’s also bad business. Take Blockbuster Video. In the early days of Netflix, Blockbuster had a chance to buy the groundbreaking new company for a mere $50 million. But it rejected the offer, thinking it could stave off the inevitable changes happening in its industry. Now, Blockbuster is bankrupt, while Netflix is worth a whopping $55 billion.

The story of our shift to better, more humane farming is a story of adaptation. It’s a story about companies that embrace the future rather than cling to the past—about companies that welcome changes in their industry and ride the wave of progress rather than push against the tide. Indeed, history shows that those which embrace change swim, while those that don’t—the Blockbusters of the world—sink.

Thanks to ever-growing consumer support around these issues—and to companies like Chipotle and so many others—the tide is indeed turning for farm animals. Breeding pigs are on their way out of gestation crates, with most major food companies eliminating those notorious devices from their supply chains and ten states prohibiting them. Egg-laying hens are on their way out of cages, with hundreds of companies mandating a shift to cage-free production. And now countless chickens are on their way toward much better lives, and less cruel ends.

Despite bunk studies and some industry naysayers, the future for farm animals is clearer than ever—and it’s a much more humane one.

Matthew Prescott is senior director of food policy for The Humane Society of the United States. On twitter at @MatthewPrescott.

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