Chicken Industry Executives Open Their Factory Doors and Fire Back at Backyard Farmers

Lampkin Butts, president of Sanderson Farms, makes a bold move but misses the mark

From left to right: Lampkin Butts, president of Sanderson Farms; Bill Lovette, CEO and president of Pilgrim's; and Jim Perdue, chairman at Perdue

Think making the right choices at the grocery store is difficult? Try making them after visiting a chicken factory.

We won't go into too many of the gory details here, but suffice it to say that we won't be eating chicken for quite some time to come. Which is probably not what Lampkin Butts, president of Sanderson Farms, intended at all when he invited numerous members of the trade press, food journalists, and the general press to come take a look at his operations on April 18.

"In every case, it's always been a positive experience, which is why we felt comfortable proceeding with this," says Butts. While this is the first time food journalists have been invited to tour his factories, it's not the first time he's opened his doors to people outside the poultry industry — Butts says he's successfully taken many politicians on the same tour. His confidence had limits, however; before the tour commenced, we were all asked to sign a statement saying that we would not bring any cameras into any of the facilities due to "biosecurity" concerns.

The tour comprised a nearly complete overview of the entire operation, giving a glimpse into an ideal production facility, at least in the view of the major industry executives who were also along for the ride, including Jim Perdue, chairman at Perdue, and Bill Lovette, CEO and president of Pilgrim's, the world's second-largest chicken producer, now owned by JBS, the world's largest meat production company, based in Brazil.

The tour began in the hatcheries, where chicks are incubated, hatched, and sorted before being taken to a grower. At the contract grower, they are brought to typical market size (about 6 ½ pounds live weight) in about 35 days, fed a steady diet of processed corn, soy, and small amounts of animal fat. They are then taken to the processing facility, where they are killed, inspected by the USDA, transformed into various popular cuts or left whole, and then packaged, labeled, and neatly arranged in stacked boxes on pallets in a refrigerated room. (Photo courtesy of flickr/AgWired)

Butts' bold move, while praised by some members of the press, did not alleviate the general feeling of malaise among the group after the tour.

"I'd rather eat chicken less often and pay a little more," said Susan Fuller Slack, contributor to Columbia Metropolitan magazine, if it meant that chickens would have true access to the outdoors, rather than being cooped up in a dark shed with 30,000 other chickens, each with less than a square foot of space. It wasn't her first time touring a poultry plant, having been to one of Perdue's older plants, but it was clear that there were aspects of the tour that were still "off-putting."

"You went in? I opted out," said another reporter, in reference to the kill room in the production facility. "Why did you go in?"

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To which we replied: If we eat chicken, perhaps we ought to know exactly where it comes from. Or as Ralph Waldo Emerson once put it, "You have just dined, and however scrupulously the slaughterhouse is concealed in the graceful distance of miles, there is complicity."