Perdue ditches all antibiotics for new chicken line, General Mills goes cage-free

The wave of corporate support for animal welfare continues to build as two of the nation's biggest food producers put in place sweeping new policies for poultry production. First, on Tuesday, General Mills ($GIS) announced that it will be using 100% cage-free eggs across the company. The following day, chicken producer Perdue announced that after eliminating the routine use of human antibiotics in 2014, it is now raising more than half its birds without any antibiotics, either human or animal.

At General Mills, the cage-free vow is part of a larger commitment to animal welfare that the company is expanding, according to a press release. The company has long followed the "five freedoms" for dairy cows recommended by global animal welfare groups, including freedom from discomfort and pain and the freedom to engage in normal animal behaviors. "Moving forward, we are committing to achieve these 'five freedoms' for all animals across our supply chain," said Steve Peterson, director of sustainable sourcing at General Mills, in the release.

The change will be far from easy, he admitted, particularly because of egg shortages created by the ongoing avian influenza crisis. "We really see this as a long-term goal that will require unparalleled collaboration. We'll work closely with our suppliers as they rebuild the supply chain to determine a path forward on this commitment," Peterson said.

General Mills' announcement drew praise from Wayne Pacelle, CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. In an article on the organization's blog, Pacelle suggested that "as the egg industry considers its production strategies in light of the impact of bird flu on cage confinement facilities, there's an opportunity for the industry to pivot away from caging hens altogether and make the transition to higher-welfare, cage-free systems."

As for Perdue, it's now distributing a new line of chicken products labeled "No Antibiotics Ever," which it is advertising in a new collection of television spots that debuted July 8. The company had been using antibiotics for growth promotion and disease prevention, but began moving away from those practices as concerns about antibiotics resistance in people emerged. Chairman Jim Perdue said the introduction of completely antibiotics-free chickens came in response to consumer demand. "We believe consumers are concerned about the use of all antibiotics, not just some," he said in a press release.

Several chicken producers, including Tyson, have vowed to eliminate the use of antibiotics that are important in human healthcare--a change being aggressively promoted by the Obama administration--but Perdue is the first to claim that the majority of its flock is now being raised without any antibiotics.

Jonathan Kaplan of the environmental lobbying group Natural Resources Defense Council congratulated Perdue in a blog item. But he did point out one caveat: Some of the company's chicken products are not audited by an independent third-party, meaning the antibiotics-free claims can't be verified. "In an industry where production practices are kept secret, and cheating has occurred, we'd like to see corporate pledges to reduce antibiotics backed by third-party verification," Kaplan wrote.

- here's the press release from General Mills
- read the Humane Society's blog item
- here's Perdue's press release
- read the response from the Natural Resources Defense Council