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Holding Big Chicken Liable

Emerging Strategies for Holding CAFO 'Integrators' Accountable

The economics of agriculture, and specifically the vertically integrated business model that dominates the poultry industry, is among the biggest barriers to cleaning up the Chesapeake Bay.

The vast majority of chickens raised in Maryland, for example, are raised according to contracts between farmers and large corporations known as “integrators” because they control the entire production and supply chain. Perdue and Tyson dominate the market. Their contracts specify practically everything about chicken production, from their shelters to their food. Indeed, the chickens themselves are the property of the corporations; the farmers simply raise them and then get paid for what they deliver to the corporation-controlled slaughterhouses.

But there’s one area in which the integrators remain conspicuously silent: how farmers are to handle the millions of tons of waste the animals produce. Some of it can be safely used as fertilizer, but beyond a certain point, the nutrients from the waste reach levels that crops cannot use. So excess phosphorus and nitrogen seep into creeks and streams, thence to rivers and eventually into the Bay. The resulting elevated levels of the nutrients give rise to huge blooms of algae, which block out light for underwater vegetation. Eventually the algae dies and is eaten by microorganisms that suck up all the oxygen in the water as they gorge themselves on decomposing algae. Reductions in dissolved oxygen create massive dead zones where fish, crabs, oysters, and other critters suffocate.

The integrators would rather not pay to deal with the pollution, so they structure their contracts to leave the farmers holding the bag.

It’s not just a Chesapeake Bay problem, either. Other regions of the country have the same problem, albeit with different waterways and different integrators, and even different animals. But it’s common industry practice to force growers to find ways to deal with massive amounts of waste.

Holding the integrators accountable for the pollution is both fair and practical, according to a CPR Issue Alert published in March 2015. It’s fair because the pollution is the inevitable result of the requirements integrators place on farmers — raise our chickens this way in these quantities in these circumstances. And it’s practical because there’s no realistic way to solve the pollution problem without the participation of the deep-pockets corporations that rake in profits from creating the problem.

For the most part, however, the integrators have managed to escape accountability. The Issue Alert traces efforts to pursue the matter through litigation, tracking a number of cases around the nation in which litigants have attempted to force the integrators to share the burden of cleaning up the pollution.

Written by CPR President Rena Steinzor, Member Scholar Bill Andreen, and Policy Analyst Anne Havemann, the alert outlines different types of legal tools that one might use to hold integrators liable for the waste generated by their contract farmers. The paper examines the advantages and drawbacks of each tool and urges citizen groups, state governments, and the EPA to continue to press for integrator liability through advocacy, litigation, legislation, and rulemaking.

Read the Issue Alert.

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