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KFC Promises PETA to Kill Its Chickens With Kindness

Fast-food chain agrees with animal rights group to change the way it processes poultry.

May 09, 2003|Stephanie Simon | Times Staff Writer

Under pressure from animal-welfare activists, the president of KFC has pledged to improve the lives and deaths of the 350 million chickens it serves in the United States each year.

In return, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals will stop sending protesters in chicken suits to KFC's corporate headquarters in Louisville and will pull back advertisements that had accused the fast-food chain of "Kentucky Fried Cruelty." The group also pledged to make a positive report -- while still pressing for additional reforms -- at KFC's annual shareholder meeting next week.

The agreement followed a three-hour meeting Wednesday between KFC President Cheryl Bachelder and PETA President Ingrid Newkirk over a dish (prepared by PETA) of a soy product tricked up to look like chicken, then rolled in a batter of nutritional yeast flakes and fried in canola oil.

"This is real progress," Bruce Friedrich, PETA's director of vegan outreach, said of the agreement.

While emphasizing that KFC does not endorse PETA's tactics of public protest, a spokeswoman for the corporation said Thursday that "our animal-welfare goals are the same."

In itself, that was a dramatic statement. KFC has long resisted -- and the poultry industry has long ridiculed -- some of PETA's most urgent demands, including calls to provide chickens with hanging cabbages or corn for them to peck.

"Recognizing that birds need mental and physical stimulation and are not just so many lumps of clay piled in a warehouse is a big step forward," Friedrich said.

KFC would not describe its reform plan in detail. But Newkirk outlined the pact in a five-page letter she e-mailed Bachelder on Thursday.

In it, she noted that KFC had promised to provide chickens with "mental and physical stimulation" such as toys and perches; increase the space allotted to each bird by 30%; step up monitoring of its poultry-processing plants; and overhaul the slaughter system to ensure more humane deaths.

Traditional methods of slaughtering chickens -- at a rate of 11,000 birds an hour -- require workers to snap live birds upside-down into leg shackles hanging from a conveyor belt on the ceiling. The chickens are then dunked, head first, into a shallow "stun bath" designed to anaesthetize them before they are killed.

PETA contends that many birds evade the stun bath and are fully conscious when their throats are slit or when they're dunked into a tank of scalding water to loosen their feathers. Friedrich said KFC has pledged to recalibrate the stun baths so they kill the chickens outright. In addition, it will install cameras in every packing plant that supplies its restaurants to monitor humane handling on the kill floor, Friedrich said

The chain has also promised to look into a new system of killing poultry with gas, which PETA advocates because it puts the birds to sleep gently, much as a dog or cat might be euthanized. Two small poultry-processing plants in the U.S. use the gas method, as do several plants that slaughter pigs.

Though PETA expressed satisfaction at the agreement, animal activists cautioned that still more reforms are needed. In particular, they want KFC to pressure breeders to develop a leaner strain of poultry.

The birds used for meat today have been bred to grow extraordinarily fast, especially in the breast.

Animal scientists say that rapid weight gain puts strain on the birds' hearts, lungs and legs, often crippling them just weeks after they have hatched. Officials in the industry have said that it will take time to develop a bird that is leaner but is still profitable.

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