American Food Hero 2019: Jim Perdue
Who he is: Executive Chairman, Perdue Farms
What he's doing: Leading the Antibiotics-Free Charge
Jim Perdue made a startling announcement back in 2016. His company—the fourth-largest poultry business in the U.S.—had decided to turn its back on the use of routine antibiotics. Even better, Perdue had already succeeded in eliminating them from 95 percent of its flocks, having quietly begun phasing them out years earlier.
The news rocked the industry. Public-health advocates had long warned that the constant, low-level administration of antibiotics given to poultry and livestock would lead to "superbugs"—bacteria resistant to the drugs—in both animals and humans. Big Ag pushed back, arguing that the danger was overblown and that eliminating antibiotic use would make prices skyrocket.
But suddenly, with proof that it could be done, the conversation changed. Competitors hastily promised to follow suit. And restaurants that had wanted to offer antibiotic-free chicken, including Chick-fil-A, Subway and McDonald's, now had somewhere to buy it. Today, Perdue's birds receive no antibiotics ever.
Ever humble, Perdue says he made the change because it's what his customers wanted. "That's Frank Perdue's legacy," he says, referring to his father, a man who became a cultural icon in commercials in the 1980s. "If you don't listen to the consumer, you don't survive."
But friends (and adversaries too) say that what makes the younger Perdue remarkable is his willingness to explore the hard questions. "Too many people surround themselves only with those who share their narrow world view—and improvement is really difficult from that place," says Leah Garcés, president of Mercy for Animals, an animal-rights organization, who calls Perdue's move regarding antibiotics "a bold step in the right direction." "We don't agree on everything," she adds. "But I know we can have a respectful conversation and understand each other's challenges."
Indeed, thanks to dialogue like that, animal welfare is the next big focus for Perdue. The company has committed to doubling the activity of its birds, adding windows to its houses and "enrichments" like hay bales so the birds can do chicken-y things like peck and roost. Perdue is also working with slower-growing breeds (which have fewer health issues because they mature at a more natural pace than many current breeds and are typically raised on pasture).
Frank Perdue used to say, "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken." His son knows that it takes a forward-thinking man to make a happy one.