updated 7/10/2006 6:29:26 PM ET 2006-07-10T22:29:26

ConAgra Foods Inc., one of the nation's largest packaged-foods companies, said Monday it is urging its poultry suppliers to consider slaughtering chickens in a way the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals calls more humane.

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The letter a ConAgra vice president sent to suppliers on June 29 doesn't mention PETA, but it uses some of the same arguments the animal-rights group uses to lobby for using "controlled-atmosphere killing."

Last September, ConAgra shareholders rejected a PETA proposal to research whether it would be feasible to require the company's suppliers to switch to "controlled-atmosphere killing" instead of the current method, which involves cutting chickens' throats after the birds have been immobilized with electricity.

PETA was entitled to present a shareholder proposal to ConAgra because it owns 140 shares of stock, and the organization had planned to resubmit the proposal this year before ConAgra sent the letter to suppliers.

The slaughter method PETA prefers involves locking chickens in a room before removing all the oxygen in the air and waiting for the birds to die.

"ConAgra Foods is committed to the humane treatment of animals," wrote Karl Skold, a vice president for commodities. "As a result, we would urge you to evaluate the method of slaughter known as "controlled-atmosphere killing," which some studies indicate is the most humane form of poultry slaughter available and also improves product quality and yield when compared to conventional methods."

Skold wrote that if suppliers come to the same conclusions about the benefits of controlled atmosphere killing, they should consider phasing in the new process.

ConAgra spokeswoman Tania Graves said these letters don't represent a change in policy for the company, and ConAgra does not plan to force its suppliers to change slaughter methods.

Graves said she wasn't sure if ConAgra has done any of its own research on the subject.

A spokesman for one ConAgra supplier, Tyson Foods Inc., said he wasn't sure if his company had received one of the letters from ConAgra.

Tyson Chairman John Tyson has said the company is committed to the humane treatment of animals, but it hasn't been convinced about the benefits of "controlled-atmosphere killing" because it is still an emerging technology.

ConAgra makes several well-known consumer brands such as Healthy Choice, Chef Boyardee, Egg Beaters, Hunt's, Marie Callender's and Orville Redenbacher.

PETA has also submitted shareholder proposals about controlled-atmosphere killing to Applebee's International Inc. and McDonald's Corp. Applebee's shareholders have rejected the proposal twice, but McDonald's agreed in late 2004 to study the concept.

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