The Dublin-based fast-food company’s animal-welfare council said yesterday that one of its chicken suppliers, O.K. Foods Inc. of Fort Smith, Ark., has started using a low-atmospheric-pressure system that renders the chickens unconscious before the birds are handled by plant workers.
The process is criticized by some animal-welfare groups but replaces the industry standard practice of stunning chickens with electricity.
Wendy’s said it is the first quick-service restaurant chain to back the system, and urged other chicken producers to embrace the practice.
The company did not disclose what percentage of its chicken comes from O.K. Foods.
“We just think it’s a more humane way to go, a superior alternative to conventional electrical stunning,” Wendy’s spokesman Bob Bertini said.
The move is part of an ongoing trend, “not just in animal welfare but in corporate responsibility,” said Darren Tristano, executive vice president of Technomic, a Chicago restaurant- and food-research group. “Many major chains are re-evaluating the way animals are treated in the food-service supply chain.”
By treating animals better, restaurants give consumers a better feeling about their meals, Tristano said. “We’re still putting them in our mouth, but we care how it gets there.”
The downside: “It very likely will increase the price of products.”
Wendy’s also said that it is working with its U.S. and Canadian pork suppliers to eliminate the use of sow-gestation stalls over time. Animal-rights groups say the individual stalls are inhumane, but pork producers say the larger stalls increase labor and food costs.
However, several major pork producers have agreed to phase out gestation crates.
Major pork buyer McDonald’s Corp. announced in February that it would phase out crates that tightly confine pregnant sows in a move that was predicted to be a major shift for the industry.
“I don’t think it’s something that is trendy in the sense that it comes and (goes),” said restaurant broker Randy Sokol of Sokol & Associates. “It’s a way of life now, something that we Americans want.”
Wendy’s has been working toward eliminating the use of the gestation stalls since 2007, Bertini said. “Our suppliers have been making progress in that area, and we felt it important that all of our suppliers now move in that direction.”
The upgrades are part of continuing efforts by Wendy’s animal-welfare council, which has been in place since 2001, Bertini said. “A major part of the program has been the auditing process of our beef, poultry and pork suppliers throughout the U.S. and Canada, up to two times a year. If suppliers do not meet our standards, they are terminated.”
Although Bertini did not know how many suppliers have been dropped, “it has taken place over the last 11 years. They’re very stringent standards and cover all areas of treatment.”
Wendy’s, the second-largest burger chain in the U.S., operates more than 6,500 restaurants around the globe. The company is trying to rejuvenate its image as a higher-end fast-food chain by updating stores, revamping its menu and making other efforts to reinvent itself after a failed merger with the Arby’s chain.
Dispatch reporter Tim Feran contributed to this story.