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What are animal agriculture's greatest priorities for 2021 and beyond?

Selling eggs from a small flock of chickens in their backyard, Arthur Perdue and his wife, Pearl, founded Perdue Foods in 1920. Five years later, the couple built its first hatchery and began selling layer chicks to farmers. Still family owned and operated today, the company has evolved into a business with over $7 billion in sales annually. As Perdue Foods celebrates its 100th anniversary, the Maryland company continues to raise the bar in animal care and beyond. Technology will be an integral part of its evolution.

“The fact that my position has recently changed to include a specificity around technology innovation suggests an important component to the company’s future,” says Bruce Stewart-Brown, Senior VP Food Safety, Quality & Live Operations for Perdue Foods. “As the fourth largest chicken company in the United States, Perdue is not interested in figuring out how it gets consumers to eat more chicken. It is focused on producing a quality product consumers value and trust.”

A veterinarian who has been with Perdue Foods for 22 years, Stewart-Brown is currently working on about 15 different projects in varying stages that involve evaluating the latest innovations in breed, feed, and management to achieve that goal.

“There are a number of chicken breeds with different characteristics, and it has become an interesting discussion in the last five years,” he says. “In part, the discussion includes criticism of current breeds.”

Chickens have been bred to grow large quickly; yet they can’t support the weight of rapid growth. Raising slower growing breeds is one area Perdue is looking at.

As for feed, making it simple has become important. “Consumers want to know what a chicken is being fed and what we do and don’t put in that feed. We don’t use any animal byproducts or antibiotics in our feed,” Stewart-Brown says.

Management is also evolving. Chickens are being given more access to the outside and more space to grow. Perdue is currently 25% free range.

“Typically, chicken houses don’t have windows. To bring in natural light, which leads to increased movement, we have started putting windows in our chicken houses,” he says.

Ahead of the Animal AgTech Innovation Summit, Stewart-Brown provides a snapshot of the challenges facing animal agriculture and how technology can play a role. He, along with Karen Hildebrand, Amazon Web Services, and Abhay Nayak, Zoetis, are part of Animal AgTech’s Greatest Priorities for 2021 and Beyond session during the virtual event on Monday, March 8, 2021.

SF: What was Perdue hearing from consumers before the pandemic? What are you hearing now?

BS-B: The company spends a lot of time listening to consumers, so it can understand where it needs to go in the next five years and what it’s going to take to get there. On average, Perdue has about 8,000 interactions a month with consumers. Both positive and negative comments come to us in various ways including email and social media like Facebook. We also have an 800 number on all of our packages, which consumers use quite a bit. 

Comments typically fall into two buckets. First are the ones where people are asking general questions like ‘What do you feed chickens? How do you characterize the way you treat chickens? What does free range mean?’ It’s a pretty big bucket. 

The second bucket is comments about the product itself. Because we have so much history, we know when something is different in the consumers’ eyes. If the number of comments jumps more than two standard deviations one way or the other, then it’s probably something we need to pay attention to. Once a month, an analysis is put together of the significant things that happened. During a company-wide call led by Jim Perdue (the third generation to lead the company founded by his grandfather), we go through that list and address each issue.

For instance, if a consumer has called into our 800 number irritated about a certain problem with a product, that call will be played for everyone to hear. You hear firsthand how someone’s meal was wrecked, and the response to it. The same is true if the complaint is associated with a plant. That plant has to explain what happened.

We're 100 years old, and you don't get to that point without paying attention and having the infrastructure in place to address issues when they come up.

Interestingly, when COVID-19 began, the calls plummeted. It took about three months for consumer interaction to go back up to where it was. While we are still fielding many of the same questions as we did before COVID-19, consumers also want to know us personally. They want to know the company’s philosophy, which is the part we like because it gives us a chance to tell our story. 

SF: Do you ever field questions about the farmers Perdue works with?

BS-B: In general, consumers really want to get to know farmers. Not only do they want to know how chickens are raised and cared for, but they also want to see how it’s done. Perdue is doing quite a bit to help consumers connect with farmers. For example, we have a social media activity where about 20 farmers share information about their operations at varying levels. As a company, we emphasize animal care that has four pillars – the chicken, the farmer, transparency, and continuous improvement. Transparency is a part of the social media piece.

SF: As demand for animal protein continues to rise, where is the greatest need for ag tech innovation?

BS-B: While we knew this before COVID-19, labor availability is an issue that is not going away. Any technology associated with labor will be a big deal especially in processing plants.

In addition, there is opportunity in transport because we need better, more comfortable, and less stressful ways to move animals from the farm to the harvest facility. It’s not only good for animal welfare, but it’s also good for the meat quality. There are multiple wins in technologies around transport. 

Going from electrical stunning to controlled atmosphere stunning is also a huge area for innovation. Perdue invested in a controlled atmosphere stunning system for one of our facilities. I'm a big fan because it’s simply a better way to harvest chickens.

SF: What is the biggest challenge facing the chicken industry going forward? How can technology help with that challenge?

BS-B: The biggest challenge is going to be staying in touch with consumers. We have to be more sensitive about consumers’ concerns and perspectives. We have to earn their trust. The opportunities come in understanding the need for transparency and traceability. 

In animal agriculture, we talk a lot about herd immunity, flock health, or general population medicine. While all of those terms are really important in managing animal health, you can’t lose sight of the individual animal.

When I started at Perdue 22 years ago, we mostly talked about the history of a farm as a whole. Today, it’s more about the individual houses on the farm and how technology helps you get more specific and detailed information on a house.

Perdue believes well cared for chickens make for better chicken. People might want to debate that, but it's really not debatable. The chicken deserves a life well lived but it’s also about the end product. Whether it be through safety or through meat quality, there's so many components of caring for animals that result in achieving both. 

Some of the best meat we have is in our organic production. It's not really associated with the organic feed but has to do more with the organic husbandry – the components of raising the chicken. I believe the idea that better cared for animals, which results in better quality meat, is going to become clearer no matter the species.

There are also some real correlations between what is happening in human health and animal health. In the animal world, we've learned about many components of disease control that are coming up with COVID-19. For instance, understanding the risk associated with high population density, and what can be done about it. 

Typically, the answer for the animal industry is more biosecurity, but it also limits access. Because no one gets to see the animals, they won’t understand how we’ve evolved in raising animals. Somehow, we have to let people in, while being careful about biosecurity. 

From an environmental and sustainability standpoint, we have to stop leaving stuff behind. Whether it is what we feed to animals that ends up in the soil or bacteria that causes a problem in the environment, we can’t leave our baggage for the next generation to clean up later. It is something that is important to everyone in animal agriculture.

SF: Where are we at in tracing the chicken from the farm to the grocery store?

BS-B: Currently, there are brands that put a picture of a farmer on the package, so you know who raised the bird as well as the farm it came from. While it can be done on whole birds, when you start talking about tracking individual pieces like breasts and wings, it’s a quandary because it’s so costly to break it down. There are too many inefficiencies in maintaining that identity. Technology needs to come along to track those pieces more efficiently, and it would probably mean redesigning plants.

SF: How do events like the Animal AgTech Innovation Summit help the industry move forward?

BS-B: Events like the Animal AgTech Innovation Summit offer a place to gather and share ideas because sometimes it can be hard to find one another.

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