"There are a lot of reasons for us to move forward on better care," Perdue, whose grandfather started the company in 1920, said in a telephone interview. "It's good for the chicken, farmer and the meat."
The company will introduce the gas stunning at a Delaware chicken plant in November and gradually implement it in all its facilities. The process is already used at its turkey plant in Indiana.
Discerning consumers are rapidly leaving their mark on U.S. agriculture, whether it's through surging demand for organic products, increasing focus on food that's considered sustainable, or greater attention on animal treatment. The poultry industry has come under fire after reports from activist groups in recent years highlighted poor conditions for both animals and employees. Last month, Tyson Foods Inc., the largest U.S. chicken producer, introduced a series of measures to make its operations more humane.
Perdue has made several other recent changes to address bird welfare, adding more space, daytime light, windows in chicken houses, dark resting time and physical activity. The company has introduced incentives for farmers who adopt the practices.
"Not only is it the right thing to do for the birds, but it's the right thing to do for the business, given the certain direction of the market," Leah Garces, the U.S. executive director of Compassion in World Farming, said in a statement. Perdue's efforts will put pressure on other poultry producers to do the same, Josh Balk, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the U.S., said in a a telephone interview.
Perdue is also continuing to study slower growing birds. The industry has been criticized for producing fast growing big birds with disproportionate top half for white meat. Some animal welfare groups have filmed birds that can't walk under their weight because of faster growing.
While less than 1 percent of Perdue's birds are breeds considered slower growing, the company has been studying them for five years, evaluating health, growth rate, feed efficiency and meat quality, according to Bruce Stewart-Brown, Perdue's senior vice president of food safety, quality and live production. The so-called woody breast texture problem that's appeared in some chicken meat doesn't show up in slower-growing birds, and chefs say birds raised for longer offer enhanced flavor, particularly in broths, he said.