Sanderson Farms’ Stance on Animal Welfare

Chick standing next to two eggs

Today’s consumers are more conscientious than ever regarding where their food comes from and how it was grown or raised.

In a 2013 poll by the American Humane Association, 89 percent of consumers surveyed stated they were very concerned about farm animal welfare, and 74 percent stated they were willing to pay more for humanely raised meat, dairy, and eggs. In fact, participants ranked humanely raised products as highest in importance over organic, natural and antibiotic-free products.

When these same participants were asked how familiar they were with the American Humane Certified label found on meat and dairy products, however, a majority said they were either only somewhat familiar or had no idea.

Many industry experts attribute the growing disconnect between farms and consumers to the general public’s lack of knowledge about agriculture and current animal welfare practices.

“The demographics have changed. Fewer than two in ten Americans are involved in farming,” explained Dr. Sacit F. Bilgili, professor emeritus at Auburn University, Department of Poultry Science. “People don’t understand what kind of work goes into producing and distributing food all over the world.”

Studies show that one of the most common consumer misconceptions is that conventionally raised chickens live their lives in cages or on overcrowded factory farms. “In reality, conventionally grown chickens are raised on family farms with strict veterinary oversight by teams of specialists,” said Dr. Karen Grogan, Executive Vice President of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians and Part-time Instructor of Population Health at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

“We brought chickens inside because it was better for the birds,” said Dr. Yvonne Thaxton, professor and director of the Center for Food Animal Well-being at the University of Arkansas.  “I think people like the idea of going back to their grandparents’ way of farming because it looks nice in pictures. But back then, the birds would have to forage for the food they got. Now they are provided a steady supply of vitamin-rich food and water. “

“Adding to the confusion, consumers are now plagued with trendy catchphrases, such as “raised without antibiotics,” which are not only misleading to consumer but also have unintended consequences for the well-being of these birds,” continued Thaxton.

“As veterinarians, we take an oath to relieve all animal suffering. When the tools we use to prevent animal suffering, such as antibiotics, are taken away from us, it’s very disheartening. It means animals are suffering when they could easily be treated responsibly,” said Dr. Grogran, describing the difficult position misinformation about antibiotics creates for her profession.

Studies have shown that flocks raised without antibiotics often have a higher mortality rate than flocks that are given antibiotics. “Looking at the statistics on birds that receive preventative antibiotics versus those that have not, you can have three to four times more dead birds in a non-preventative flock compared to a preventative flock,” said Steve Roney, Clinical Associate Professor at the University of Georgia College of Veterinary Medicine.

Sanderson Farms continues to make a strong case for the responsible and judicious use of antibiotics in its poultry production. “The truth is, there is no credible scientific research to support the idea that the use of antibiotics when treating chickens contributes to the development of antibiotic resistance in human bacterial infections,” argues Dr. Phil Stayer, Corporate Veterinarian for Sanderson Farms. “At Sanderson Farms, we believe we have a moral responsibility to protect the welfare of our animals.  It’s simply the humane thing to do.”

“Animal caretaking starts in our hatcheries even before the chick is hatched.  We administer a combination of vaccine and antibiotic inside the egg three days before chicks are scheduled to hatch,” said Stayer. “The medicine is given to treat bacterial contamination that inevitably accompanies all eggs as a result of the egg laying process. This single combined injection under the shell is the only time we inject antibiotics, leaving little opportunity for resistance to develop in the grown broilers.”

“Indeed, our practices and federal law require that any antibiotics administered to poultry be metabolized and clear of the chicken’s system before the birds leave the farm. In fact, almost all U.S. broiler chickens are injected inside the egg prior to hatch, including those labeled as ‘raised without antibiotics’.”

Stayer explained that once an egg hatches, the chick is placed into a farm transport basket with its hatch mates. Highly automated and efficient systems ensure newly hatched chicks get to farms as quickly as possible for timely access to feed and clean water.  Chicks are transported in climate controlled trucks to provide comfort and protection from any harm. Sanderson Farms’ animal welfare programs are audited at least twice a year by internal and third party audits, to make sure that all live chickens are handled in a safe and humane manner.

Food safety has an important connection to animal welfare and antibiotic use in chicken. “It is almost intuitive that healthy chickens and other farm animals will carry lower bacteria counts into the processing plant than those that are less healthy or sick. Evidence from Europe and the United States supports this view,” said Stayer.

“Just like people, animals get sick, and treating illness is a responsible part of animal care,” said Tom Super, Vice President of Communications for the National Chicken Council. “Even if you have the best animal health plan, some chickens are going to be exposed to infections that can only be cured with antibiotics.”

“From a pure business standpoint, it would make zero business and economic sense for a farmer to do anything to a bird that would harm it,” continued Super. “The birds are their livelihoods and chicken producers want to do everything possible to keep them healthy.”