Controversial Chicken: Something ‘Rotten’ in the Poultry Industry

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It’s versatile, delicious, and around the world, we each eat about 27 pounds of it a year. With many of us reducing our consumption of red meat, chicken has become the go-to choice at the butcher’s counter. And while it’s so good to eat, the latest installment of Netflix’ “Rotten” series shows us that chickens, and the people who “grow” them, have it so bad. The poultry industry is no stranger to corruption and controversy.

Most chickens live anywhere between 42 and 57 days before being slaughtered, and during that time, their lives aren’t all that great. Being raised for slaughter means being fed well and often, some birds growing so big they can’t even walk. Even if they can walk, doing that is almost impossible living in such cramped quarters. As many as 20,000 birds are housed together at one time. The ammonia from their droppings makes the air they breath putrid, and many never even see the light of day. Daylight encourages activity, after all, and activity creates a tougher meat for you and me to eat.

We eat a lot of chicken at my house. My second freezer is jam-packed with it; I tend to go a little crazy when chicken comes on sale. I would love to know that every time I eat it, I’m eating a bird that lived a good life. A bird that was able to run around a farm field, pecking and picking at interesting things along the way. There is such thing, but it’s rare and it’s expensive. The “Rotten” episode introduces us to farmers who are trying to reduce animal cruelty by letting the chickens enjoy their short lives. They’re given some freedom and encouraged to be birds. The thing is, the chicken that enjoyed its life will cost you. A bird raised this way will probably be about three times more expensive at your local supermarket. The reality is, many of us can’t and won’t spend the extra money.

Unfortunately, these chicken-friendly business models can’t possibly keep up with the intense worldwide demand for poultry. The documentary says market watchers are predicting that chicken will be the most eaten meat within the next couple of years. Farmers say they’ll need to double their chicken output by 2050 in order to keep up with our cravings. With demand like that, “big chicken” companies will always be in charge, and explosive growth will always be the name of the industry’s game.

The U.S. chicken industry is dominated by four companies: Pilgrim’s Pride, Tyson, Sanderson Farms, and Perdue. They’re big, and they’re 100 percent in control of the chickens from the day they hatch, until the day they’re slaughtered and shipped to the stores. These companies have been able to maximize their profits by leaving the expensive job of raising the birds to the farmers, otherwise known as “growers.” The farmers are where the virtual chicken assembly line begins, and they work really hard for very little reward. The day after the chickens’ hatch they’re delivered to the farmers and the growing process begins. In this episode, you’ll meet growers who work day and night making sure the chickens are well taken care of; from the food they eat to the temperature being maintained in the so-called ‘houses.’ The chickens are expected to gain about two ounces a week until they’re ready for slaughter, and if the grower does his or her job right, the poultry companies get rich. The contracts between the two parties are ruthless, greatly favoring the companies. For example, the documentary says growers are paid based on the weight of the birds. So, while you spend upwards of $7.00 for parts of a chicken at the store, the farmer was actually only paid about 36 cents for the whole thing. Despite all of their hard labor and expenses to raise the birds, being a chicken farmer is not lucrative at all. It’s a situation that has been made possible by the monopoly these big chicken companies hold over the industry. What’s more, many of the growers featured in this episode care so deeply about the chickens they raise, making it all the more difficult when tragedy strikes.

In 2015, the poultry world was rocked by a terrible crime. In a span of five weeks, several different chicken farms in a South Carolina county were attacked. Growers were waking up in the morning to find their chickens had died; victims of mass slaughter caused by thermostat vandalism. In some cases, the chickens froze to death; in others, they roasted. A total of 320,000 chickens were killed. The main suspect? A jilted ex-grower for Pilgrim’s Pride who had recently lost his contract with the company. He was eventually arrested and put on trial, but due to a lack of evidence, the case was thrown out. The farms that were attacked are still trying to recover. They suffered over $1 million in damages, and the clean-up of all the carcasses alone cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. The growers were of course never paid for the birds they raised, because they never made it back to the poultry companies for slaughter.  For the companies themselves, the birds killed were barely a drop in the bucket.

The poultry industry is rife with controversy, and it runs deeper than dead chickens or the unfair relationship the companies have with the growers. The industry has been defined by its need for constant, explosive growth, which has created serious threats to the supply and demand chain around the world. The documentary points to a fatal mistake Pilgrim’s Pride made in 2006 when it bought more chicken growers in the USA. It grew too big, too soon, and when the recession hit, the company was forced into bankruptcy. A Brazilian company called JBS bought it for $2.8 billion, effectively taking over 20 percent of U.S. chicken. JBS is the world’s largest meatpacker, but how it came up with the money to buy Pilgrim’s Pride dragged the chicken industry into a major political scandal. It turns out that JBS secured the loan from the Brazilian government, thanks to tens of millions of dollars in political donations it has made over the years.  Brazilians took to the streets in protest, and the stakes were high for the world’s food supply if the scandal lets to major countries refusing meat imports from Brazil. As a result, the brothers who own JBS were arrested in 2017 and charged with insider trading. Just another ugly mark in the chicken industry’s landscape.

It was interesting to learn how corrupt and cruel the chicken industry can be in the U.S. and around the world. I can only imagine how nice it would be to have the North American industry run by smaller, family-owned chicken farms, instead of by four major companies all-consumed by mass production and domination. But our demand for chicken is too high, and with 58 billion birds raised for slaughter around the world every year, the ‘ little guys’ can’t compete. It seems to me we will always be filling the coffers of ‘big chicken.’

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Catherine Sherriffs

Editor at Garden Culture Magazine

Catherine is a Canadian award-winning journalist who worked as a reporter and news anchor in Montreal’s radio and television scene for 10 years. A graduate of Concordia University, she left the hustle and bustle of the business after starting a family. Now, she’s the editor and a writer for Garden Culture Magazine while also enjoying being a mom to her three young kids. Her interests include great food, gardening, fitness, animals, and anything outdoors.