Bookmark and Share June 28, 2011 - Dave Mulder

Examining Perdue’s ‘better chicken’ claim

Perdue Farms is the third-largest producer of broiler chickens in the United States, behind Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride. Recently, Perdue launched a new marketing campaign: “We believe in a better chicken.” The slogan implies that Perdue gives its birds a better quality of life than competitors. To support that connotation, the company tags its chicken as ‘USDA Process Verified’. As US eaters march toward an era of free-range animals and organic food, it is vital to know if Perdue’s claims represent a serious turn in their practices, or if it is an attempt to humane-wash their brand.

Under the USDA’s process verified program, Perdue gets to select the points it wishes to certify. They have chosen:

  • All-vegetarian diet.
  • No animal by-products.
  • Humanely-raised.
  • Raised cage-free.

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Just like the free-range chicken from the county next door. Well, maybe not.

Most egg—and broiler—process verification programs certify that the chickens are fed and sheltered. How, is quite another matter.

Perdue’s claims are marketing hype because broilers are pretty much always fed grain, are not routinely fed animal by-products, and are not raised in cages. The claims say nothing about antibiotics so you have to assume these chickens are treated with antibiotics to promote growth and prevent infection under crowded conditions.

What about that humanely-raised claim? Perdue uses benchmarks.

  • Education, training, and planning.
  • Proper nutrition and feeding.
  • Appropriate comfort and shelter.
  • Health care.
  • Normal patterns of behavior.

But … those best practices aren’t set by any regulatory body. Perdue sets internal guidelines for what they think passes as ‘appropriate comfort and shelter’.

Furthermore, process verified isn’t intended to be tool for quality assurance. It’s a marketing program, not a standard. USDA’s description of process-verified spells it out in exact terms.

Companies with approved USDA Process Verified Programs are able to make marketing claims associated with their process verified points – these include age, source, feeding practices, or other raising and processing claims — and market themselves as “USDA Process Verified” with use of the “USDA Process Verified” shield and term. The USDA Process Verified Program does not relieve the company of meeting regulatory requirements issued by other Federal Departments or USDA Agencies.

So is Perdue humane-washing or putting a mild spin on their marketing?

I’m going to err on the side of spin. Perdue hasn’t changed their business practices, but they’ve been trying to differentiate their product on quality for decades. Perdue’s latest campaign positions them in the path of shifting consumer behavior. You can’t blame them for wanting to capitalize on change.

And perhaps they are right. Perdue’s chickens may have a higher quality of life than competitors.

What about this quote from Perdue’s chief marketing officer?

“Consumers want a company to be transparent,” said John Bartelme, chief marketing officer at Perdue Farms in Salisbury, Md. “They want to know a lot more about the company behind the product.”

So Perdue Farms is taking “a documentary-style approach, including real associates,” Mr. Bartelme said, using the company’s term for employees. Their presence in the campaign is why the new theme is “We believe,” he added, rather than Jim Perdue declaring, “I believe.”

Hmmm. For years, I’ve been advocating food transparency. If eaters saw how big suppliers treat their animals, they’d run to a humane and sustainable alternative.

While Perdue’s campaign plays up transparency, it’s on the people in the company — not the products the company makes. Under the guise of personal narrative, the story that really matters is still opaque.

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