Pew Report Highlights Hidden Costs of Industrialized Poultry Production

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Contract Production Risks Water Quality and Public Health

Industrialized poultry production in the United States delivers considerable efficiencies, but the same system carries significant, hidden costs for the environment, for many communities where chickens are raised for industrial production, and sometimes for the chicken growers themselves, according to a report released today by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Building on the findings of a 2011 report, “Big Chicken,” the analysis finds that industry practices increase the concentration and density of broiler waste production, which makes sound waste management difficult and leads to contamination of local streams and lakes. While poultry processors contract with individual farmers to tend company-owned birds according to detailed specifications, the full burden of waste disposal frequently falls on the individual growers. They may not make enough money to pay for proper waste management, and poultry processing companies are often not held legally responsible for cleaning it up.

“Any strategy to minimize the environmental and human health costs of industrial poultry production must start with the hard-working farmers who actually raise the chickens we eat,” says Josh Reichert, an executive vice president at Pew who directs the Trusts' environmental initiatives. “Unfortunately, these growers often bear the burden for waste management without the financial and technical resources required.”

“The Business of Broilers: Hidden Costs of Putting a Chicken on Every Grill,” finds, for example, that poultry processors usually own the birds, feed mills, cooking operations, and transportation networks, but contracts often hold independent farmers entirely responsible for disposing of the animals' manure. In addition, processors may ask these independent chicken farmers to make unique and frequent changes to their barn sizes, ventilation, watering systems, and other equipment to improve production efficiencies, which can result in added business costs for farmers. 

“Under this system, even highly capable and environmentally responsible growers can be constrained by debt and financial instability,” said John Boyd, president of the National Black Farmers Association and a former chicken grower. “By sharing the costs of production, large processors and farmers can work together to better protect the environment and our health.”

The report outlines a number of steps that policymakers and industry could take to protect the environment and public health. They include:

  •  Poultry processing companies should share responsibility for the waste products generated by poultry processing.  
  •  The cumulative environmental impact of concentrating poultry production within a limited geographic area should be taken into consideration when siting or enlarging processing plants.  
  •  Regulation should improve oversight of the contract system of poultry production to ensure that poultry growers are able to make well-informed decisions that allow them to protect the environment and public health. 
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The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today's most challenging problems. Pew applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and stimulate civic life.

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