The Zombie Chicken Business

chicken zombie

Story at-a-glance -

  • Almost all chicken farmers (more than 97 percent) work under the thumb of a giant producer, who controls their pay, their farming and ultimately their fate
  • In many rural areas, there’s only one (or maybe two) big chicken companies in town, and they have no choice but to enter into exclusive contracts that, for many, saddle them with debt and little recourse if the relationship sours
  • At one time, there were 1.6 million independent farms in the U.S.; today, there are about 25,000 contract farms that raise most U.S. poultry, with many of them raising upward of a half-million birds annually
  • Contract farmers are paid using a tournament-style system that may deduct money from their paycheck based on others’ performance, pitting one farmer against another

By Dr. Mercola

In the U.S., a Sunday chicken dinner is as all-American as apple pie, but this dietary mainstay is an example of one of the biggest problems facing the food supply: the growing market concentration.

Unless you happened to purchase your chicken at a local farm, farmers market or food co-op, and can attest that it was raised on pasture, the way many people think their chicken is raised, it likely came from a major player in the industry, like Perdue or Tyson.

Tyson claims to be “one of the leading supporters of American agriculture,”1 for instance, but it’s not because they’re out in the field tending to their flocks. Instead, it contracts with more than 4,000 so-called “independent” farmers, who are tasked with raising the birds according to the parent company’s strict demands.

In fact, almost all chicken farmers (more than 97 percent) work under the thumb of a giant producer,2 who controls their pay, their farming and ultimately their fate. In many rural areas, there’s only one (or may two) big chicken companies in town, and they have no choice but to enter into exclusive contracts that, for many, saddle them with debt and little recourse if the relationship sours.

Most US Chicken Comes From ‘Zombie’ Farmers

U.S. chicken farmers are forced to work like zombies, whose every move is controlled by their puppet master, Big Chicken. “They … act like a lord with serfs, or a landowner with sharecroppers,” The Atlantic wrote of the poultry giants.3

It starts out with farmers taking out loans in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, and often more than $1 million, to build a house for their chickens. They contract with one of the big poultry players, who then sends them their chicks, which the farmers raise for market according to the company’s rules.

The corporation then takes care of slaughtering the chickens, packaging the meat and selling it to consumers, who are none the wiser that their farmer middleman may have only been paid 5 to 6 cents per pound of meat. The farmers have very little say in how the chickens are raised. Jonathan Buttram, president of the Alabama Contract Poultry Growers Association, told The Atlantic that in these contract relationships:4

“The company has 99-and-a-half percent control over the grower … I’ll list what they tell you: what time to pick up the chickens, what time to run the feed, what time to turn the lights off and on, every move that you make. Then, they say we’re not an employee — we are employees, but they won’t let us have any kind of benefits or insurance.”

Farmers struggle with low pay, lack of autonomy and no job security. In 2001, former chicken farmer Alton Terry contracted with Tyson Foods to raise chickens, after taking out a $500,000 loan to build houses for the chickens. After a couple of years, Tyson told Terry to purchase more equipment, to which he refused, and the next year he believes the company gave him sick chicks, then canceled his contract.

With no other chicken companies in town, Terry couldn’t find another customer to buy his chickens, essentially putting him out of business.

“Terry sued Tyson in 2008, alleging the company canceled his contract because he rallied farmers in the area to lodge complaints about the company with their congressional representatives and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA),” The Guardian reported. “[H]e said Tyson mistreated him with tactics such as weighing his birds incorrectly while not allowing him to watch the weigh-in, a violation of USDA rules.”5

Yet, Terry lost the case because he wasn’t able to show that Tyson had harmed the entire poultry industry, forcing him to pay the poultry giant’s legal fees and eventually declare bankruptcy, losing everything he had.

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Tournament-Style Pay System Pits Farmers Against Each Other

At one time, there were 1.6 million independent farms in the U.S. Today, there are about 25,000 contract farms that raise most U.S. poultry, with many of them raising upward of a half-million birds annually.6

There are many downfalls to raising chickens this way, not the least of which is seeing the chickens living in inhumane, filthy conditions. “They pack these chickens in these houses so tight,” Buttram said. “It's nasty. It is hard to see.”7

Talk of committing suicide is par for the course for farmers facing high levels of debt with little hope of a way out. Part of the problem is that the farmers are paid using a tournament-style system that may deduct money from their paycheck based on others’ performance.

Tyson calls it a “performance-based incentive system that rewards poultry farmers who effectively convert the feed we provide into weight gain in the birds they raise.” Yet, part of the payment formula includes “the performance of their flock compared to those raised by other contract growers.”8 As the USDA explains it:9

Contract fees are rarely a fixed amount per pound delivered; instead, fees are based on a grower’s relative performance compared to other growers who deliver chickens to the poultry company at the same time.

This method is sometimes called a tournament method of determining pay because, like a professional golf or tennis tournament, a participant’s earnings do not depend on absolute performance, but on performance compared to other tournament competitors.

Fees are determined in the following way. The integrator measures the average cost of the inputs that the integrator provided to growers for chickens delivered to the processing plant in a week — the total value of feed, chicks and veterinary services provided to growers divided by the total weight of chickens delivered that week. The company develops this calculation for each grower.

Each grower is then paid a base fee, and those growers whose costs are lower than the average for all growers receive a premium over the base fee; those whose costs exceed the average for all growers receive a deduction from the base. The amount of the premium or deduction reflects the size of the cost difference.”

Farmers Risk It All While Big Chicken Maintains Power and Control

Imagine being promised that you can make a good living raising chickens, taking out $1 million in loans to get started, then being told your wages have been reduced because your neighbor raised his chickens at a lower cost.

If you complain, it could backfire, as many contract farmers claim they’ve been retaliated against for doing so, punished by not getting shipments of new chicks, getting sick chicks or having their contracts canceled.

“These companies go into economically depressed areas and tell you you’re going to make a lot of money growing chickens,” Barbara Patterson, government relations director for the National Farmers Union (NFU) told Civil Eats. “What they don’t tell you is that you’ll be indebted for the rest of your life, at their mercy for as long as they have you.”10 As mentioned, suicide is sometimes viewed as the only way out. Buttram continued to The Atlantic:11

“Back a few months ago, a grower called me and said he was going to kill his broiler manager and kill himself …

I never thought that I would have to be talking people out of committing suicide or committing murder. It shouldn't be that an entity can coerce you into committing suicide when you have put everything on the line — your mortgage, your farm — and the company has nothing invested in it but a few chickens.”

At the farmers’ expense, poultry giants are able to get rich by selling cheap chicken to Americans. As noted by the Cornucopia Institute,12 the price of chicken has dropped dramatically over the past few decades, becoming the cheapest meat available in the U.S. As a result, consumption has doubled since 1970.

Seeing how chicken is supposed to be a healthy source of high-quality nutrition, the fact that it has become so affordable might seem to be a great benefit. But there's a major flaw in this equation. As it turns out, it's virtually impossible to mass-produce clean, safe, optimally nutritious foods at rock-bottom prices, and this has been true since the beginning of “industrialized farming.”

In their report, “The Hidden Cost of Cheap Chicken,” the Cornucopia Institute pointed out three primary issues with the CAFO chicken that accounts for 99 percent of poultry sold in U.S. grocery stores:13

Ethics — Chickens are intelligent and deserving of access to the outdoors where they can express their natural behaviors.

Sadly, in CAFOS, “The National Chicken Council, the trade association for the U.S. chicken industry, issues Animal Welfare Guidelines that indicate a stocking density of 96 square inches for a bird of average market weight — that’s about the size of a standard sheet of American 8.5-inch by 11-inch typing paper …

They are unable to move without pushing through other birds, unable to stretch their wings at will, or to get away from more dominant, aggressive birds.”

Environment — CAFOs are notorious polluters of the land, air and water, with problems reported across the U.S. The report noted:

“ … [former] Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson was threatening to sue Arkansas poultry producers, including Tyson Foods, saying that waste from the companies’ operations is destroying Oklahoma lakes and streams, especially in the northeast corner of the state.”

Human Health — The spread of infectious disease and antibiotic-resistant superbugs is a fact of life at CAFOs. In 2015, a bird flu outbreak among U.S. poultry led to the destruction of millions of chickens and turkeys in three states (Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa) before spreading elsewhere in the U.S.

Even though there were supposed safeguards in place to contain deadly disease outbreaks from spreading, poultry veterinarians noted that those strategies failed, as the bird flu managed to spread across 14 states in five months.

Eating Big Chicken’s Birds Could Be Making You Sick

We haven’t even touched on another of the big issues facing contract farming, which is the fact that the chickens’ growing conditions contribute to the spread of disease.

One study by the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) found that chicken samples gathered at the end of production after having been cut into parts, as you would purchase in the grocery store, had an astonishing positive rate of 26.2 percent contamination with salmonella.14

What’s more, it’s recently been suggested that urinary tract infections (UTIs) may be a foodborne illness caused by eating chicken contaminated with certain strains of E. coli.

In fact, in a study led by Lance Price, a professor at George Washington University’s Milken Institute School of Public Health, it’s suggested that “People are definitely picking up those infections from poultry” and “We have to open up our heads and acknowledge that foodborne infections aren’t just diarrhea and/or vomiting; they can be UTIs, too.”15

It’s not the chicken that’s the problem, but the way it’s being raised, at the behest of the poultry giants. In addition to contamination with pathogenic bacteria, CAFO chicken also pales in comparison to pasture-raised chicken in nutrition. Pasture-raised chickens have been found to be higher in vitamins D3 and E and have an average omega-3 to -6 ratio of 1-to-5, compared to a much less healthy CAFO value of 1-to-15.16

There’s a Better Way to Raise Chicken

Many farmers who enter into contracts with agrigiants do so with good intentions of raising food and supporting their families, only to get burned by the veritable hand that feeds them. What many of them are not aware of is that there are better ways to raise chickens — for the planet, for health and even for profits.

Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, an innovator in the field of regenerative agriculture, has developed an ingenious system that has the potential to transform the way food is grown. According to Haslett-Marroquin, regenerative agriculture needs to be centered around livestock like chickens in order to be optimized.

Haslett-Marroquin's program has generated a system that has regenerative impact both on the ecology and the economy, meaning it restores the ecology that produces food, and the economic flows necessary for that food to be economically sustainable and resilient.

It also addresses the social conditions of food production in the U.S (and elsewhere), which is important considering the fact that farmworkers are typically poorly paid immigrants.

The chickens are completely free-range, with access to grasses and sprouts as they are rotated between paddocks. This system significantly reduces the amount of labor involved as compared with other ideas out there.

Further, in a poultry-centered regenerative system, tall grasses and trees protect the birds from predators instead of cages — in addition to optimizing soil temperature and moisture content, extracting excess nutrients that the chickens deposit, bringing up valuable minerals from below the soil surface and being a high-value perennial crop.

Opposite of CAFOs, these poultry-centered systems are regenerating the land instead of destroying it, raising chickens humanely instead of cruelly and producing nutritionally superior, not inferior, food.

If you choose to eat chicken, finding a local grass fed farmer raising chickens on pasture is the safest, and healthiest, route to go, and you can also feel good that you’re supporting a farmer making a fair living — not being beholden to, and bankrupt by, corporate giants.