From chicken breeding to grocery store packaging, the 21st-century broiler chicken business is possibly the most industrialized sector in livestock agriculture. The industry is dominated by a handful of large corporations that own the birds, feed mills, cooking operations, and transportation networks. These corporations do not, however, raise the chickens. Virtually all of America's broiler chickens are raised by “growers”—individual farmers who operate under contracts with the large processing companies.
From one perspective, the system is astoundingly efficient, catapulting U.S. chicken consumption well over that of beef and pork. Factory-style production allows consumers to spend their food dollars on what appears to be an inexpensive meat that has been sliced, diced, deboned, and often cooked for them. But, in reality, this system is costly—for the environment, for many communities where chickens are raised for industrial production, and sometimes for chicken growers themselves. It puts many communities' water supplies at risk and places the burden for waste management on the contract growers. And when waste management practices fail, the cost of cleaning up polluted waterways falls on the public.
In its 2011 report “Big Chicken: Pollution and Industrial Poultry Production in America,” The Pew Charitable Trusts examined 50 years of data to take a fresh look at industrial poultry production and to make policy recommendations for managing chicken waste to mitigate its toll on land and water. In this report, we take a closer look at this highly integrated contract production system, which in many respects is unique to this industry, and what it means for the environment and the growers who raise America's broiler chickens.
Among our findings:
- Large processing plants benefit from nearby large- scale growing operations but in doing so force regional concentration and density of broiler waste production. This density makes sound management of that waste increasingly difficult due to its volume and, in many cases, has led to contamination of local streams and lakes. Protecting water resources from poultry waste requires a wider look at the cumulative impacts of processing plants and all their associated chicken-growing operations.
- Few growers are able to make a living solely from the broiler business. A 2001 study by the National Contract Poultry Growers Association and the U.S. Department of Agriculture revealed that 71 percent of growers whose sole source of income was chicken farming were living below the poverty line. They may not make enough money to pay for proper waste management, and poultry processing companies are often not held legally responsible for cleaning up. Proper waste management will require increased accountability from processing companies and a reasonable level of financial, technical, and other support for growers.
Poultry processors contract with individual farmers to tend company-owned birds according to very detailed specifications and directions. Each company has unique and frequently changing requirements for barn size, ventilation, watering systems, and other equipment but obligates growers to pay for these costly fixed assets. Under this system, even highly capable and environmentally responsible growers can be constrained by heavy debt. Poultry production that protects the environment must provide growers with opportunities and resources for innovation and proper management.
In this report, we also provide recommendations for correcting some of the most persistent problems associated with contract poultry production. These proposed reforms, which are detailed at the end of this report, are:
- Poultry processing companies should share responsibility for the waste products that are generated by poultry processing.
- The cumulative environmental effect of concentrating poultry production within a limited geographic area should be considered 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 protect the environment and public health.
These reforms will not come easily, but if adopted, they can help to create a more sustainable future for an American food staple.