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Perdue's "Humanely-Raised" Chicken: The Latest Misleading Food Claim

Just when you thought it was safe to go back to the supermarket, another food manufacturer has decided to slap a misleading claim on its products. This time it's Perdue, the country's third largest chicken producer, which has started touting its a natural chicken products as "humanely raised." But, according to the Animal Welfare Institute, this chicken is grown pretty much the same way most conventional chicken is -- that is to say in large, dimly-lit, horribly smelly and crowded barns.

The new packaging for natural Perdue chicken, which the company started rolling out in February, also makes the claim that the chickens were "raised cage free" -- a hollow assertion since the caging of so-called broiler chickens is not actually an issue. That would be caged egg-laying hens. Thus the "cage free" claim has all the meaning of a declaration that the chickens were not genetically modified or not allowed to breed with feral cats. But it nonetheless gives consumers the impression that Perdue's chickens are of particularly high quality and different from the norm.

That, however, doesn't appear to be the case. Perdue is basing its humanely raised claim on the National Chicken Council's animal welfare guidelines, industry-created standards that the Animal Welfare Institute and other groups have taken issue with since they were created back in 2005. This is the first time any chicken producer has attempted to use the humane label.

The NCC guidelines allow as little as one square foot per bird and that there's no requirement for natural light or that the birds have access to the outdoors. And the NCC stipulates that chickens must have at least four hours of darkness (for sleeping), but it doesn't specify that it be four consecutive hours. All in all, it's not the pastoral image that shoppers looking for humanely raised meat have in mind.

To top it off, Perdue's chicken packages also declare that their product has been "USDA Process Verified," making it sound like a USDA inspector went out to make sure that Perdue's chickens were really living the good life. But in reality, the "Process Verified" stamp only means that the company is correctly adhering to the NCC standards, not that the living conditions are actually humane.

The important lesson for managers here is that when you're trying to play into a consumer trend, it's best to either do it all the way or not at all. Half measures and weak, industry-generated standards aren't going to fly and may come back to bite you.

It may be true that large scale chicken farming doesn't lend itself to things like outdoor access, ample space and pasture eating, but in that case the smart thing to do is leave labels like humanely-raised to smaller producers who can actually adhere to them.

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