Big Chicken: Pollution and Industrial Poultry Production in America

Jul 27, 2011

Broiler chickens (raised for their meat) are produced by the millions in industrial facilities concentrated in just a handful of states, and much of the waste they produce ends up polluting the nation’s waterways. These are just two issues highlighted in Pew’s new report “Big Chicken: Pollution and Industrial Poultry Production in America” (PDF).

The report compiles and analyzes 50 years of federal and state government data to describe a business that has been remade by industrialization. Key findings include:

  • In less than 60 years, the number of broiler chickens raised yearly has skyrocketed 1,400 percent, from 580 million in the 1950s to nearly nine billion today.
  • Over the same period, the number of producers has plummeted by 98 percent, from 1.6 million to just over 27,000 and concentrated in just 15 states.
  • The size of individual operations has grown dramatically. Today, the typical broiler chicken comes from a facility that raises more than 600,000 birds a year.

“Big Chicken” describes the emergence of concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) and the environmental impact of this industrial-scale production. The process creates massive amounts of broiler litter, the mix of manure and bedding taken out of the CAFO. Growers typically dispose of litter by spreading it on open fields or cropland, but when it is over-applied or poorly managed, rain washes it into streams and rivers, causing significant water-quality problems.

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