Tyson has proposed stunning chickens before slaughter to address animal welfare concerns, according to a company release. "Ensuring the well-being of the animals in our care is a core part of our broader sustainability journey and these initiatives are the latest examples of our leadership in this important area,” Justin Whitmore, chief sustainability officer for Tyson Foods, said.
The meat giant will practice a technique supported by scientists called controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS), which uses gas to render birds unconscious. CAS reduces the amount of time employees are handling conscious birds, reducing animal distress and improving worker conditions.
The technique will be used at two Tyson poultry farms during the next year and will be evaluated before the company decides whether or not it will expand CAS to other facilities. Tyson has nearly 60 full-time animal welfare specialists on staff, including at least one at every processing facility that handles live animals.
Stunning poultry prior to slaughter is already standard in the United States, according to the National Chicken Council, but most U.S. poultry plants currently use low-voltage electrical stunning rather than gas. This involves running chickens through a water bath that has been charged with an electrical current to render them unconscious and insensible to pain.
The National Chicken Council claims there are still questions about how humane gas stunning methods actually are. Depending on the type, quantity and mix of gases used, if it is not done properly some poultry are not immediately rendered unconscious. As a result, the council predicts electrical stunning will remain the standard practice in the U.S.
In the European Union where about 19% of poultry are stunned using gas, the European Commission has set limits for the use of certain gases and states that water bath stunning has “welfare disadvantages” by comparison. Apart from the 1% of birds that are not immediately stunned using the water bath method, another concern is the pain and distress caused during the birds’ shackling before they are passed through the electrical bath.
One of the main limiting factors for widespread gas stunning is its higher cost, especially if a poultry processor is switching from one system to another. However, including installation, European researchers have calculated the cost difference per bird is about one cent.
If Tyson does roll out the gas stunning method across its facilities, it seems unlikely that the company will advertise it in the same way it touts its other sustainability efforts. This isn't the producer's first major investment in animal welfare, either — it follows several other initiatives, including the industry's largest third-party monitoring program in the U.S., which records footage of live birds at 33 of its poultry plants. The footage is then reviewed for adherence to humane treatment of birds.
According to a recent Packaged Facts report, nearly two-thirds (58%) of U.S. consumers are more concerned about animal welfare than they were a few years ago, although only a third consider themselves well-informed about claims like hormone/steroid/antibiotic free, cage-free, free-range, pasture-raised and certified humane. It will be interesting to see if Tyson adopts the CAS technique across all of its plants, and if other manufacturers follow suit.