You can walk into any large grocery store and buy a factory raised whole chicken for about $1.50 a pound. Chickens raised on sustainable local farms currently cost close to $3.00 a pound, or more if they are organically raised. To someone on a budget, purchasing the cheaper chicken would seem obvious, but there are hidden costs. Consumers are more and more demanding that animals bred for food be treated humanely and the poultry industry is responding, but only with lip service. Given the business model of the confinement method of raising chickens that was established in the late 1950s, it’s virtually impossible to treat these animals humanely or without antibiotic treatment, even if front-of-package advertising claims otherwise. Waste treatment for factory farms is also a problem environmentally, and one that hurts us all.
The poultry industry prides itself on “vertically integrated” practices, which simply means that one entity, a corporation, controls all aspects of production, from how the chickens are bred and raised to how they are sold. This method is a profitable one, and allows these large corporations to control nearly 100% of the multi-billion dollar annual market. Individual farmers do participate in these large-scale operations, but have no control over any phase of production. The poultry companies provide farmers with chicks and feed, and also put farmers under contracts which force them to raise the birds in confinement houses which can hold tens of thousands of chickens. The chickens are bred to grow fast (from chick to meat in seven weeks) and large. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals estimates that a similar rate of growth in humans would result in a 6.6 lb. baby weighing 660 lbs. after 2 months. The consequences of these vertically integrated practices result in cruelty, and conditions that contribute to easily transmitted diseases, such as the recent outbreak of bird flu. And although the disease currently is not easily transmitted to humans, some epidemiologists believe that bird flu is only a mutation or two away from a strain that spreads easily from person to person. At the very least, an outbreak can have severe effects on local economies. Two farmers recently decided to expose conditions at their farms; Carole Morison, a Maryland resident who was under contract with Perdue, the nation’s third largest chicken producer, and Craig Watts of North Carolina, who is under contract with Perdue but who is suing the company for “intimidation.”
Craig Watts has been raising chickens (700,000 a year) for Perdue for some 20 years. Late in 2014, he decided to allow Compassion in World Farming to film conditions at his farm. As is reported in an article in the Washington Post, “Perdue labels all of its chickens as humanely raised.” Perdue has since removed the “humanely raised” statement from its packaging as part of a settlement of a suit brought by the Humane Society of the United States, which is entirely insignificant as it does nothing to improve the conditions under which the chickens live. Leah Graces, the U.S. director of Compassion in World Farming, appears in the film with Craig Watts. She issued a statement concerning what she saw: “Americans think they are buying chickens raised in idyllic pasture when the meat is labeled ‘natural.’ But what they are actually buying are chickens raised on a bed of feces-filled litter that hasn’t been changed for years. They are buying chickens bred to get big, so fast they can’t stand on their own two feet. They are buying chickens raised in dimly lit warehouses, who never will see the light of day except when coming from the hatchery or heading to slaughter.” What Ms. Graces doesn’t mention is that the farmers themselves are abused by the conditions of their contracts. They are frequently told to buy more chicken houses, which can cost approximately $200,000, the cost of which contributes to a debt load that is insurmountable. A National Contract Poultry Growers Association study from 2001 calculated that 71% of chicken farmers live on or below the poverty line.
Carole Morison has a slightly different story to tell about her contractural relationship with Perdue. She was featured in the 2008 documentary, Food, Inc., and has, with her husband, gone on to create a humanely run chicken farm. Perdue cancelled the contract with the Morison’s after they had refused, at the company’s behest, to completely shield their chickens from any contact with fresh air or sunlight. In this interview, Ms. Morison describes the conditions on their farm as dictated by Perdue. She speaks of the fear farmers have of losing their contracts when under the pressure of debt, the pain and suffering of the chickens because of how they are bred and raised, as well as the financial difficulties they endured because of their contract.
None of this information is new, but it bears repeating as there seems to be no end in sight of these corporate enterprises. And these conditions are not limited to chicken farms, but exist in every large operation involving meat animals. And although the problems of these farms did not mention environmental concerns, it has also long been recognized that Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) contribute to global warming and a host of health problems associated with tainted water and air. Especially considering the study conducted by Professor Elliott Campbell demonstrating that 90% of Americans could be fed entirely by food grown or raised within 100 miles of their homes (as discussed in the post, How the Demise of Agribusiness Would Save us All, June 10), we need to consider alternatives. The business model for industrially raised chickens is cruel, disgusting, harmful to the farmers, and dangerously bad for the environment. Buy local.
Recipe of the Week
This recipe is perfect for this time of year, as the ingredients are seasonal, and in our case, at least, local.
Grilled Salmon Salad with Blueberries and Goat Cheese
1 pound of wild Chinook salmon
1 cup fresh blueberries
1/3 pound goat cheese
mixed wild greens
sugar snap peas
extra virgin olive oil
red wine vinegar
The salmon needs no treatment. Simply grill it until just cooked, about 15 minutes. Let cool. Mix all other ingredients, dress with a sprinkle of oil and vinegar and serve.