Panera Bread makes new animal welfare pledge for broiler chickens

A Panera Bread Co. sandwich and chips are arranged for a photograph in Tiskilwa, Illinois.
Daniel Acker | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Panera Bread is once again throwing down the gauntlet to its competitors.

The company said Tuesday that it will be adopting practices set forth by the Global Animal Partnership's Broiler Chicken Standard. The nonprofit organization has created a five-step welfare program for livestock raised for meat production.

The standard requires no cages or crates of crowding be used on farms, which is aimed at improving the living environment of the animals, allowing outdoor access, and adopting a "pasture-centered" farm, where animals are removed from the pasture in times of inclement weather. Also, no physical alterations can be made to the bird such as beak trimming, de-spurring or toe trimming.

Panera is the first national restaurant chain to adopt these standards and it hopes that other chains will follow in its footsteps.

"We started 13 years ago with chicken raised without antibiotics because we believed that a national restaurant company could use size and scale to affect change in the marketplace," Ron Shaich, CEO of Panera Bread, said in a statement. "Our journey to reduce antibiotics has taught us that truly transformational change requires moves by many stakeholders. It is our hope that leadership by companies like Panera will continue to be a catalyst for animal welfare across the industry."

Panera plans to use new, higher welfare broiler chicken breeds, provide these birds with more space to live, improve the environments in which they live — using more natural lighting and adding bales of hay for the chickens to graze on — and making sure that the chickens are stunned and unconscious prior to slaughter.

The company hopes to implement these changes by 2024.

"As a restaurant serving more than 10 million people a week, we have the platform and purchasing power to encourage positive changes in animal welfare practices. We also have a responsibility to the farmers and ranchers who care for these animals," Sara Burnett, director of food policy and wellness at Panera, said in a statement.

Burnett told CNBC that chicken is by far Panera's highest volume product and that the company wants to invest in a higher welfare bird in the same way it invested in antibiotic-free and vegetarian-fed chicken.

"More often when you have a higher welfare animal, you have better-quality meat and taste," she said.

As for the financial implications of Panera's new commitment, Burnett said that there will be no initial impact to the company's earnings. Instead, it is investing time and employee resources to complete the research necessary to transition to this new welfare promise by 2024.

"We are willing to take the risk and challenge the industry to do better," Burnett said.