Power asymmetry in the poultry industry: Cruelty to both farmers and animals

Emily Kowalik ’18
Assistant Opinions Editor

Poultry farming has changed immensely from the traditional model of years past. While many developments in the past 30 years have resulted in a more efficient business model, at the same time many concerns have been raised regarding animal cruelty, overuse of antibiotic and the oppression of farmers. Many people are unaware of the inhumane and sometime grotesque process involved in getting chicken from the farm to the dinner table.

One disturbing fact about poultry farming involves the treatment of the birds and the farmers in growing operations. Modern chicken growers contract with firms such as Tyson Foods to sell their birds. Nearly every chicken raised for market in the US is grown by farmers who contract with companies that own the chickens as well as the entire supply chain — from the hatcheries to feed mills, to processing plants. The farmers are paid to raise the chicks to market weight. Tyson provides the chickens and the feed, and the growers must provide the house — a barn about the size of a football field. In recent decades, farmers have struggled as their income has stagnated while their expenses have increased.

The poultry industry is structured in a way which benefits people in high positions within the companies selling the product, to the detriment of the farmers who raise the chickens. According to The New York Times, some farmers see themselves as modern sharecroppers because of the control large corporations have over their operations.  While large firms supply the birds and feed, many farmers go into debt supplying and upgrading the houses. The companies put so much pressure upon these farmers that they effectively have no control over their operations. According to the Contract Poultry Growers Association, the average grower lost money on poultry operations in 10 of the 15 years between 1995 and 2009.

Growers on average only earn five cents per pound on the birds sold by the company. The farmers earn even less if they are rated low on an efficiency scale by the company they are contracted to. Farmers are placed into a cruel hierarchy which decides how much they make — the farmers who have the highest output are given a bonus from money cut out of the lower-ranked farmers’ pay. Furthermore, farmers have no way to verify or dispute the efficiency rankings.

Furthermore, if farmers protest what they view to be unfair conditions and procedures, they put their livelihoods at risk because poultry companies have been known to financially punish farmers who speak out against them.

After researching the poultry industry, John Oliver alleged that the big-scale poultry processors, such as Tyson Foods, Perdue and Pilgrim’s, have pressured Congress into loosening the Agriculture Department’s regulations and have also penalized the chicken growers who fight back against the conditions in which they are placed.

What’s more, despite all their hard work and difficulty dealing with large poultry companies, farmers share very little in the profits of the industry. The main payouts go to those at the top of the corporate ladder. According to The New York Times, “A 12-piece KFC chicken meal costs about $30, and the farmers say their share is about 1 percent of that — less than the tax.” While the ability to buy poultry cheaply benefits consumers, the business model of the poultry industry is deeply flawed.

In addition, investigations into the welfare of the animals involved in this industry often shows the conditions to be grim. According to an investigation conducted by Compassion in World Farming, in some areas the poultry industry is conducted in way which allows for animal cruelty and potentially poses health hazards to consumers.

And, while the poultry raised for meat have the ability to roam in a barn, as opposed to those used for egg-laying who are kept in small cages, these animals still face abuse, in the form of breeding processes.

These chickens have had their genetics altered to the point where, according to Compassion in World Farming, they grow to have “a huge breast that [their] legs can barely support.” Many chickens have sickeningly limited mobility due to their disproportionate body parts.

Fortunately, some companies have responded to consumer concerns regarding animal cruelty and health issues. Whole Foods recently announced that it would restrict its sale of chicken to only those that have more traditional genetics. Whole Foods has proven to be on the forefront of this issue, and it is my hope that other companies will follow suit to address this problem.

It’s time for consumers to pay more attention to the processes that go into putting chicken on their dinner plates. It’s time for the poultry industry to change for the benefit of farmers and birds alike.

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