In the United States, a handful of large corporations including Perdue and Tyson direct and oversee nearly every step in the poultry production process, essentially serving as overlords to the tens of thousands of small farmers with whom they contract to raise their chickens for slaughter. While deriving the lion’s share of the profit, these corporations have so far managed to avoid all responsibility for the pollution their chickens produce. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and state agencies have been largely afraid to tackle the issue because of the well-heeled and politically powerful farm lobby. A new CPR Issue Alert urges government to hold these bad actors accountable and explains how to do so under existing law.
These companies, known as “integrators,” own virtually all aspects of poultry production—from hatching the chicks, to processing and retailing them, even transporting poultry products to grocery stores and restaurants. The integrators outsource the physical raising of the birds to contract growers but the contracts dictate the size of the flock, the temperature of the chicken houses, the ingredients of the feed, and the medication the chickens receive, among other minutiae. According to a North Carolina grower, his contract with Perdue explicitly prohibited him from exposing his chickens to sun or fresh air. Corporate representatives typically visit each producer and chicken house weekly to supervise the grower’s work.
For chicken growers, the economic reality is that they do not have much choice about whether to take part in this vertically integrated system, as integrators often refuse to purchase birds from independent growers. Instead, farmers must sign handcuffing contracts that are written entirely by the integrator and presented to the grower on a take-it-or-leave-it basis. Integrators frequently require the growers to build and upgrade expensive houses to continue to raise the company’s birds. Chickens reach slaughter and processing weight in about six or seven weeks, but loans taken out to build the houses can last for more than a decade, making many chicken growers entirely dependent on a series of flock-to-flock contracts to repay their debts.
To increase efficiency and boost revenue, chicken farms have ballooned in size. Pew reports that the number of chickens produced annually in the United States increased by more than 8 billion birds—a 1,400 percent increase—over 50 years. At the same time, the number of farms plummeted from more than 1.6 million in 1950 to just over 27,000 in 2007, a 98-percent decline.
Accompanying the massive growth in poultry farming is a massive chicken-manure problem. In 2011, again according to Pew, the 523 million chickens produced each year in Maryland and Delaware alone generated roughly 42 million cubic feet of chicken waste—enough to fill the dome of the U.S. Capitol every single week. Most of the waste is spread on farm fields to enrich soil and fertilize crops. But there’s often more waste than the fields can safely handle. When overapplied, the waste runs off the fields into nearby streams and rivers. Manure is chock-full of nitrogen and phosphorus, essential nutrients for healthy waterways, but only in the right quantities. When too many nutrients get into the water, algae growth explodes, devouring oxygen in the water and leading to “dead zones” that cannot support aquatic life. This past summer, for example, the Chesapeake Bay dead zone was the eighth largest since record keeping began.
While integrators micromanage virtually every aspect of raising the chickens—from the amount of sunlight the chickens get to what they eat—the integrator is silent when it comes to the difficult, expensive, and critical prospect of managing the resulting manure. That’s not by oversight; it’s a conscious choice by the big poultry companies. They know that the quantity of manure is a huge problem, and that handling it in a healthy and environmentally sustainable fashion can be costly. So even though their very specific demands about how and how many chickens must be raised help drive the problem, when it comes to dealing with the pollution, the integrators turn their backs and leave it to the individual farmers to handle.
As a result, these multi-billion dollar chicken companies have outsourced responsibility for managing and disposing of manure to small farmers. So while contract farmers scrape by, mega-companies like Perdue and Tyson—the deep pockets that are best positioned to invest in solutions to deal with all of this waste—sit silently on the sidelines. This industry is the only one in the United States that escapes liability for improper disposal of its own waste, in the process jeopardizing irreplaceable natural resources like the Chesapeake Bay.
The Issue Alert, written by CPR President Rena Steinzor, Member Scholar Bill Andreen, and Policy Analyst Anne Havemann argues that the integrators should share liability under existing law with the growers for disposal of the millions of tons of chicken litter produced each year. The Issue 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.