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Chicken Farmers Gagged and Swindled by Giant Poultry Processors

Chicken Farm

Story at-a-glance -

  • John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” featured a scathing, but honest, expose on the plights of chicken farmers
  • Chicken farmers fall into debt to get into the business, then are beholden to the poultry industry’s demands
  • Chicken farmers are also paid via a tournament or “gladiator system,” which pits farmers against each other and penalizes those at the bottom
  • If the farmers speak out against the industry, they’ll face retaliation, such as receiving poor-quality chicks and feed

By Dr. Mercola

If you pick up a package of chicken breasts from your supermarket, it gives no clues to the controversies and political unrest facing the farmers that raised those chickens. Nor does it hint at the unethical, inhumane, and often unsanitary conditions that have become commonplace in "modern" poultry farming.

Who's to blame? The giant poultry processors – like Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Pilgrim's Pride, and Sanderson Farms – who dominate the industry and control the chicken farmers like puppets and punish those who dare to speak out against the system.

If you happened to catch John Oliver's HBO episode of "Last Week Tonight" that featured this issue (it aired in May 2015), you were party to one of the most compelling and honest exposes of US poultry production to be featured by mainstream media.

John Oliver Takes on Giant Poultry Processors

Poultry processors feature promotional videos of chicken farmers who appear happy and secure in their work, but this rosy picture is, according to Oliver, nothing but PR spin.

Many farmers tell a different story of hardship and financial ruin. More than 70 percent of chicken farmers live below the poverty line,1 despite the fact that chicken is in high demand in the US, due to a process known as contract farming.

Companies bring chicks in to individual farms, drop them off and then pick them up for processing after they're fully grown. Nearly all US chickens (97 percent) are raised in this manner, but the problem is that the poultry processors own the chickens while the farmers own the property and equipment. In other words, as Oliver put it:

"You [the farmer] own everything that costs money and we [the processor] own everything that makes money."

Many farmers go into significant debt (over $1 million) to start up their farms because they're led to believe they'll have a steady source of income. But then they're left at the complete mercy of the processors to continue on.

Even the growing conditions – the fact that chickens are raised indoors without access to sunlight and fresh air, for instance – are dictated by the poultry processors. Further, as farmers begin to pay off their debt, the processors can step in and demand costly upgrades, sending the farmers right back into the red.

Chicken Farmers Paid Using Cut-Throat Gladiator System and Face Retaliation for Speaking Out

Chicken farmers are also paid via a tournament or "gladiator system," which pits farmers against each other. Those ranked in the top half (producing the fattest chickens with the least amount of feed, for instance) receive a bonus payment while those at the bottom will get a penalty.

That may mean the farmers at the bottom receive about half the pay for the same number of chickens…

And when the farmers speak out against the industry, the processors retaliate by cutting the number and quality of chickens the farmers received. The industry denies this, but the farmers say otherwise.

Chicken farmer Mike Weaver told Politico that after he spoke at a USDA-hosted panel about the tournament system, Pilgrim's retaliated by giving him poor-quality chicks and feed. He told Politico:2

"They do it clandestinely… They have ways of getting back at you that's hard for you to prove."

The retaliations are no secret among the business – so much so that it's rare for chicken farmers to speak up at town hall meetings designed to get protective regulations in place. The poultry producers warn the farmers not to attend -- and the farmers listen lest they have their livelihood threatened.

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Rules to Protect Chicken Farmers Are Not Being Enforced

Rules have been made to help protect the farmers, but each year the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rider is inserted into the House Appropriations bill. This defunds the Agriculture Department's efforts to protect farmers.3

This isn't surprising, since the poultry industry spends million to lobby Congress on their behalf. As reported by EcoWatch:4

"Two lawmakers, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), have led the charge to torpedo the GIPSA rider, but have been stymied repeatedly by colleagues like Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR)…

Womack, a member of the Appropriations Committee from the district where Tyson is headquartered, has received tens of thousands of dollars from individuals associated with Tyson and the National Chicken Council, the industry's trade group.

But the money flow does not stop there. Kaptur published a press release with the names of representatives who voted against her provision. Of them, in 2014, Reps. Jack Kingston (R-GA), Robert Aderholt (R-AL), and Henry Cuellar (D-TX) received contributions from Tyson. 

Rep. Andy Harris (R) received contributions from Perdue (both are based in Maryland); Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) received a donation from Pilgrim's Pride, and Sanderson gave thousands to the late Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R), who hailed from the Mississippi district where the company is headquartered…

Each of them received a substantial portion of the National Chicken Council's $302,900 in 2014 contributions… The National Chicken Council has spent more than $2.5 million [lobbying Washington] just in the last five years…

Tyson goes above and beyond with more than $9 million in recent lobbying expenditures; Perdue has spent hundreds of thousands, as has Pilgrim's; and Sanderson Farms has spent more than a million dollars in the last three years. They have each lobbied against GIPSA reform in some capacity."

On a positive note, the Agriculture bill for 2016 was recently approved by the House Appropriations Committee without the GIPSA defunding rider attached for the first time in years, although for now the poultry farmers are still being gagged...

Perdue Chicken Farmer Speaks Out

In the video above, Leah Garces of Compassion in World Farming visits Craig Watts, a contract farmer for Perdue. Dissatisfied with the system, he has taken the bold step to show everyone the reality hiding behind his barn doors. "There's a lot of flaws in the system," he says. "The consumer is being hoodwinked."

His chicken farm raises about 30,000 chickens at a time (which is far less than the 60 million chickens common at farms in Iowa), and over a six-week growing period, it's considered normal for at least 1,000 of them to die. Causes of death include illness, genetic problems, and injuries occurring from overcrowding. The chicks are sent to the contract farmer from Perdue, and the farmer has no control over the health or genetics of the chicks they receive.

Their only job is to raise them, and in order to fatten them up faster, the farmers are, sadly, actually contractually prohibited from giving the flock access to open air and sunshine, because the less the chickens move, and the more they eat, the bigger they grow.

Is it any wonder that the lobbyists for the meat, egg, and dairy industries heavily promote, and several states have already enacted, so-called ag-gag laws to prevent anyone from exposing animal cruelty and food-safety issues at CAFOs? They don't want you to know what's really going on at their "farms," which is a significant red flag that you do not want to eat food raised there.

It's worth noting, too, that most CAFO animals are fed genetically modified (GM) feed, like corn and soy. These crops are heavily treated with herbicides like Roundup, the active ingredient of which is glyphosate. Glyphosate is also patented as an antibiotic — and a very effective one at that — against a large number of beneficial organisms.

Unfortunately, like all antibiotics, it also kills vitally important beneficial soil bacteria and human gut bacteria. This is yet one more way that eating CAFO foods may harm your gut, your mental health, and your physical health.

New Drug-Resistant Bacteria in Your Meat

There are other reasons to think twice before buying chickens that come from concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) – the potential for drug-resistant bacteria. Nearly 25 million pounds of antibiotics are administered to livestock in the US every year for purposes other than treating disease, such as making the animals grow bigger faster. In fact, 80 percent of the antibiotics used in the US are used in agriculture, and this practice is promoting the spread of antibiotic-resistant disease.

Antibiotic-resistant bacteria infect 2 million Americans every year, causing at least 23,000 deaths.5 Worse still, a report commissioned by UK Prime Minister David Cameron estimates that by 2050 antibiotic resistance will have killed 300 million people, with the annual global death toll reaching 10 million.6 And according to the CDC, 22 percent of antibiotic-resistant illness in humans is in fact linked to food,7 but a more accurate statement might be linked to food from CAFOs.

Take Klebsiella pneumonia, a bacteria that can lead to pneumonia, bloodstream infections, wound and surgical site infections and meningitis. Klebsiellaare often found in the human intestinal tract, where they are normally harmless. But if your immune system is compromised and you get exposed to an especially virulent drug-resistant form of Klebsiella, the consequences to you can be deadly. It wasn't thought to be transmitted via food… until now.

New research published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases showed that turkey, chicken, and pork sold in US grocery stores may contain klebsiella pneumonia.8  In fact, 47 percent of samples tested contained the bacteria, which was, in some cases, nearly identical to strains found in people with klebsiella pneumonia infections during the same time period. US chicken is not currently tested for klebsiella pneumonia bacteria. In the case of CAFO chicken, you've probably heard about the risks of salmonella, but in addition to that and klebsiella pneumonia, campylobacter is particularly problematic. 

Chickens and turkeys normally harbor campylobacter in their digestive tracts without becoming ill. Antibiotics routinely given to the birds in CAFOs don't completely eliminate campylobacter from the birds' intestinal tracts, so the surviving bacteria are the tougher ones that have resisted being killed off by the antibiotics.  

Those bacteria proliferate in the birds and end up being passed on to you — along with their antibiotic-resistance. Campylobacter bacteria are found on chicken carcasses in slaughterhouses and in commercial poultry products — including on the outside of poultry packaging — where they can easily infect you, your children, or even your pets.

Another Massive Chicken Recall

It seems a week doesn't go by without a major recall of some type of food product, often one that's mass produced. Salmonella Heidelberg,a particularly virulent strain of salmonella, sickened several hundred people between 2004 and 2014. The strain was traced to Foster Farms, one of the largest poultry companies on the US West Coast. You can see some of Foster Farms cruel and highly questionable "business practices" in the video above (warning, it's graphic).

From March 1, 2013 to July 11, 2014, chicken from this CAFO sickened more than 600 people before a recall was issued. Foster Farms got a fair share of bad publicity in 2014, yet no punitive action has been taken. Again in 2015, we've already had two large chicken recalls – Barber Foods' recall of 1.7 million pounds of frozen and stuffed, raw chicken products, and Aspen Foods recall of 1.9 million pounds of chicken products. Both companies' products were recalled after reports of people being infected with salmonella enteritidis after eating the chicken.

While the poultry industry reports that rates of salmonella contamination have actually gone down, rates of human salmonellosis have remained stable.

But a company can actually be in compliance with the food safety standards and still be responsible for a salmonella outbreak, which is what happened in the case of Foster Farms. Since the company was meeting USDA performance expectations, the agency didn't have the power to force a recall; it was left up to the company to voluntarily recall their tainted chicken and it was resistant to doing so.

So it's important to realize that whole poultry is permitted to contain a certain level of salmonella — and there's NO set level for chicken parts. Since salmonella is so prevalent, you should assume any store-bought CAFO chicken is contaminated and handle it accordingly. In fact, the USDA expects you to destroy any present pathogens through safe handling and proper cooking.

USDA Allows US Chickens to Be Shipped to China for Processing

Unbeknownst to many Americans, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows chicken raised in the US to be shipped to China, processed, then shipped back for US sale.9 It's unclear which, if any, companies are using this process, but still unsettling to know it can occur, especially given that China's food-safety record is less than admirable.

Further, there are no plans for USDA inspectors to be stationed at the Chinese processing sites, and US consumers will have no way of knowing if their chicken took a trip to China, as labels aren't required. Tom Super, spokesman for the National Chicken Council, told the Houston Chronicle:10

"Economically, it doesn't make much sense… Think about it: A Chinese company would have to purchase frozen chicken in the U.S., pay to ship it 7,000 miles, unload it, transport it to a processing plant, unpack it, cut it up, process/cook it, freeze it, repack it, transport it back to a port, then ship it another 7,000 miles. I don't know how anyone could make a profit doing that."

There is potential for profit, however, because while US poultry processors are paid about $11 an hour, such Chinese workers may only earn $1.11 The seafood industry already uses such a system, sending US-caught salmon and crab overseas to China because of the "significant cost savings" in processing.12

Bird Flu Epidemic Still Raising Costs

2015 ushered in the largest outbreak of highly pathogenic H5N2 avian flu in US history. Nearly 50 million birds have been infected and killed as a result. Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa have declared a state of emergency and China and Mexico have imposed bans on US poultry and eggs. The US government approved $330 million in "emergency funds" to help fight the disease's spread.13 And the USDA also stepped in, with 266 employees dedicated to helping states affected by the outbreak. The Agency also approved $130 million (of taxpayer money) to help CAFOs "get back on their feet."14

And the outbreak is still costing taxpayers, as the USDA has hired private security firms to place armed guards outside of CAFOs hit by bird flu, even though the birds have already been cleared out. As reported by Politico:15

"The concern, one official said, is that people enter the facilities and track the virus out to other facilities that contain healthy birds."

The costs that have been incurred are incredible, especially considering the epidemic was caused by the CAFOs. What happens when you have tens, or even hundreds, of thousands of animals living together in cramped, waste-covered quarters, fed an unnatural and unhealthy diet, and unable to spend time outdoors or engage in any of their natural behaviors? Disease takes hold and runs rampant. As reported in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives:16

"As a general principle, the concentration of humans or animals in proximity enhances potential transmission of microorganisms among members of the group. It also creates greater potential for infecting surrounding life forms, even those of different species. The conditions created also may be a breeding ground for new, more infectious, or more resistant microorganisms."

As a result of the epidemic, "shell eggs," which are the type sold by the carton in grocery stores, have increased significantly in price. Wholesale costs rose from $1.19 a dozen in late April to $2.03 a dozen in late May.17 According to analysts at Goldman Sachs, consumers may end up spending up to $8 billion because of the bird-flu-induced egg shortage. If you haven't already considered it, now would be a great time to connect with a local farm that offers healthy chicken and eggs. The products might be more expensive than the CAFO versions at your grocery store… but are they really more expensive, all things considered?

Celebrities Get Involved to Clean up the Chicken Industry

Celebrities like Brad Pitt and Ryan Gosling have contacted wholesale store Costco to urge them to stop selling eggs from caged hens. Pitt wrote in an open letter to the store:18

"As you know, these birds producing eggs for your shelves are crammed five or more into cages that are not large enough for even one hen to spread her wings… In these cruel cages, the animals' muscles and bones atrophy from years of immobilization.

That's why the cages are illegal in most of Europe, and why California banned the cages by an overwhelming vote years ago… In short, cramming hens into cages for their entire lives constitutes cruelty to animals, and animals deserve better. As you know, many major corporations, from Burger King to Unilever, are getting rid of cages – and Whole Foods hasn't sold eggs from caged hens in years."

While Costco hasn't given a response about selling eggs from caged hens, the company has been involved in an ongoing push to end the use of human antibiotics in chicken and other livestock. Costco has been working with the FDA and the CDC to help eliminate the use of so-called shared-use antibiotics (those used for both humans and livestock), a step in the right direction – although taking a stand against caged hens is equally important.

Wouldn't You Rather Eat Meat Without Drugs?

Positive change is on the horizon. Consumer demand has put pressure on meat companies like Tyson, Perdue, and Pilgrim's Pride to adjust their production practices. Fast-food chain Carl's Jr. even recently rolled out a burger made with grass-fed, free-range beef, promising to be free of antibiotics, steroids, and hormones,19 which shows that when enough consumers talk, corporations listen.

However, the best way to change the system is to stop supporting them. Instead, seek out a local farmer near you who is operating outside the constraints of these industry giants. By purchasing your meat from smaller farms that raise their animals in a humane fashion, according to organic principles, you're promoting the proliferation of such farms, which in the end will benefit everyone, including all the animals. The organic industry also tends to favor far more humane butchering practices, which is another important part of "ethical meat." The following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods — including organic grass-fed and finished meats — in your local area:

  1. Local Harvest -- This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
  1. Farmers' Markets -- A national listing of farmers' markets.
  1. Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals -- The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
  1. Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) -- CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
  1. FoodRoutes -- The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSA's, and markets near you.

When shopping for antibiotic-free meat, you can also keep the following labels in mind to help you find truly high-quality meat:20

100% USDA Organic label offers excellent assurance that antibiotics have not been used at any stage of production.
"Grass-fed" label coupled with USDA Organic label means no antibiotics have been used, but if the "grass-fed" label appears alone, antibiotics may have been given.
"American Grass-fed" and "Food Alliance Grass-fed" labels indicate that in addition to having been raised on grass, the animal in question received no antibiotics.
The following three labels: "Antibiotic-free," "No antibiotic residues," and "No antibiotic growth promotants," have not been approved by the USDA and may be misleading if not outright fraudulent.
"Natural" or "All-Natural" is completely meaningless and has no bearing on whether or not the animal was raised according to organic principles. "Natural" meat and poultry products can by law receive antibiotics, hormones, and genetically engineered grains, and can be raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).