ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The poultry industry may be on the verge of a big change in the way it handles chickens. Perdue, one of the country's largest poultry producers, says it's increasingly hearing from customers who say they want the birds treated more humanely. And NPR's Dan Charles reports those requests are starting to translate into action.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: Poultry companies like Perdue Farms have fought a lot of battles with animal welfare advocates. But last week, Perdue asked some of those critics to come visit one of its chicken farms near Frankfort, Del. A Perdue executive, Mike Leventini, showed them around.
MIKE LEVENTINI: So when you walk into this barn, first thing you see - there's windows, right? You get a feel for how much life's in this barn.
CHARLES: It's a long building filled with tens of thousands of young birds.
LEVENTINI: They're being chickens. They're flapping their the wings. They're running around. They're hanging out.
CHARLES: Some of the chickens have climbed up on straw bales. Some are perched on little wooden ramps. And this may sound totally normal, but it's actually a new thing for the mass market chicken industry. This becomes clear when we walk into a second chicken house right next door. This one is typical for the industry. And it has no windows. The chickens live in twilight. Leah Garces, the executive director of Compassion in World Farming, says this is affecting the birds.
LEAH GARCES: They're quiet. They're sitting. They're not moving. Whereas in that house they were running around, climbing on things, pecking, perching. It's a big difference.
CHARLES: Perdue is the fourth-biggest poultry producer in the country. It sells billions of dollars' worth of chickens every year. That first barn with the windows represents one of the changes it's making. The company says it's learned that when chickens are more active, the meat tastes better. But it's also changing because some big food companies have announced in the future they'll only buy chickens from companies that give those birds a better life. An executive from one of those companies is here, Maisie Ganzler from Bon Appetit Management Company, which buys millions of pounds of chicken a year for corporate cafeterias and museum cafes.
MAISIE GANZLER: We've all made our commitments. So what's next is to live up to the promise we've made. And I don't say that flippantly. That is a real challenge.
CHARLES: Companies like Bon Appetit want chickens to be raised according to a new set of rules established by an organization called the Global Animal Partnership. It was started by the grocery chain Whole Foods. And Perdue now says it will try to meet that standard, which means in addition to windows in chicken houses, a new slaughtering process using gas to make the chickens unconscious before they're killed. Another part of this new standard that will be harder to satisfy - it involves growing a different kind of chicken, one that can run and jump more easily because it doesn't put on weight so quickly.
BRUCE STEWART-BROWN: Let's go in here.
CHARLES: Bruce Stuart Brown, a veterinarian and senior vice president at Perdue, shows me two small pens of chicken side by side. One pen has the kind of bird the industry grows now. The other one has an older so-called heritage breed. And I can tell just looking at them that the industry standard birds are much more plump.
STEWART-BROWN: I'm going to guess that bird's already maybe two pounds heavier than this bird.
CHARLES: These birds are the product of breeding, creating chickens that put on weight as quickly as possible.
STEWART-BROWN: They're just bred for appetite, you know? So they're bred to eat.
CHARLES: And they grow so fast their bones have a hard time supporting their weight. The new animal welfare standard demands that companies use slower-growing breeds. But that means it could take more time and more feed for each pound of chicken. Also, heritage breeds tend to have bigger legs and less breast meat. So Stewart-Brown says if consumers want Perdue to change, they may have to change a little, too - maybe pay more, eat more dark meat.
STEWART-BROWN: Dark meat eaters are growing and actually looking for flavor - right? - and should be pretty excited about this breed.
CHARLES: Animal welfare advocates like Leah Garces think consumers will force the poultry industry to change the same way the egg industry was forced to shift away from keeping egg-laying chickens in cages. In five or 10 years, she says, slow-growing chickens will be as common as cage-free eggs. Dan Charles, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.