Chicken Industry Executives Open Their Factory Doors And Fire Back At Backyard Farmers

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?"

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."

We were particularly concerned about the speed of the production line, which, according to USDA regulations, can move at a maximum of 70, 91, or 140 birds per minute, depending on the inspection system in the plant. Some 20 plants in the country have been part of a pilot program since 1999 that allows speeds of up to 175 birds per minute, and Kendra Waldbusser, senior vice president of food safety and quality assurance at Pilgrim's, says that some plants in Europe are already running at 200 birds per minute.

The production facility we toured ran at 70 birds per minute. Even at that speed, workers who were wielding butcher knives, disassembling chickens hanging from hooks into the various popular cuts — breasts, thighs, and wings — seemed to be moving at lightning speed, with little room for error. Jacques Pépin, who can quarter a chicken while lecturing at an audience and only occasionally looking down at the bird — i.e. practically with his eyes closed— would have had trouble keeping up.

But, if Americans want to continue buying chicken at rock-bottom prices and consuming chicken at the current rate, this is the way it is done, or as Perdue puts it, "... certainly, we cannot go back to the agricultural practices we had when the [world] population was only 1 ½ billion."

In aggregate, the poultry industry produces 8 billion chickens per year, according to Dr. John Glisson, director of research at the U.S. Poultry & Egg Association. This is a staggering number, even considering that according to the USDA Foreign Agricultural Service, 20 percent of broiler chickens produced in the United States are exported.

To people who are concerned, then, over the welfare of the line workers, Waldbusser says that the 20 pilot plants that have run at 175 birds per minute have done so without incident thus far.

Still, the farm and the production facility weren't the only parts of the tour that disturbed people. An editor for EatingWell magazine couldn't get the image of live chicks at the hatchery being trundled underneath a conveyor belt during the sorting process, only to fall to a collection bin below to be euthanized later, out of her head. Edward Chisholm, one of the tour leaders from Sanderson Farms, estimates that about 15 percent of chicks hatched end up being euthanized.

It didn't help that after the tour, chicken was on the menu for supper.

Does it really have to be this way, though? Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, explores an alternative means of production in his visit to Polyface Farms, located in Virginia's Shenandoah Valley.

There, Joel Salatin raises the chickens the old-fashioned way: on a smaller scale, where the chickens are free to run around and eat what they please, a diet consisting of grass and bugs, supplemented by corn, toasted soybeans, and kelp, free of pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

The chickens fertilize the grass that the cows eat, and the cows help generate new topsoil as they graze. This is all done in a carefully managed manner to make sure the soil benefits from this system, rather than suffering from it; the chicken pens are moved each day so that they fertilize a new patch of grass, and the cows don't graze continuously. The chickens grow more slowly there, taking 56 days to reach market weight. And, to maintain control over the whole process, Salatin slaughters his own chickens.

"Polyface's customers know to come after noon on a chicken [slaughtering] day, but there's nothing to prevent them from showing up earlier and watching their dinner being killed — indeed, customers are welcome to watch, and occasionally one does," writes Pollan. "More than any USDA rule or regulation, this transparency is their best assurance that the meat they're buying has been humanely and cleanly processed... Like fresh air and sunshine, Joel believes transparency is a more powerful disinfectant than any regulation or technology."

What's the price difference? At the time of writing, Polyface was selling its chickens for $2.05 per pound versus $1.29 for a conventionally produced chicken at the supermarket.

And even though the scale of his operations is only 100 acres, in a typical season, Salatin produces about 12,000 broilers and 30,000 dozen eggs, in addition to all of the other products he grows on his farm.

Supporters of the poultry industry view things in a different light, however. Dr. Yvonne Thaxton, professor and director for the Center for Food Animal Wellbeing at the University of Arkansas, says that "Sometimes practices that look bad are actually good, and sometimes practices that look good are actually bad."

Low lighting in the sheds where the chickens are grown on an industrial farm, for example, may seem like substandard conditions to a human. But, according to Thaxton, "It keeps [the birds] calmer to be in a low-light situation. It is much better for the chicken's overall welfare."

On the surface, it sounds simply like humane practice. But doing so also reduces unnecessary movement and cuts down on the calories needed to get the chickens to the desired weight, which means savings for the producer in terms of reduced expenditure on feed. The price of feed these days is high, with corn selling for an average of $8 per bushel. So keeping the chickens calm is also friendly to producers' bottom lines.

On the other hand, chickens that are raised outdoors are exposed to the elements, says Thaxton, and unprotected from predators, which she argues, results in more suffering for the animals. She also says that the old-fashioned way of killing chickens — by hand, not by machine, without stunning them first — results in more suffering as well.

Glisson says that the birds are "contained because of all the things we're trying to keep out — rodents, insects, any kind of animals, and first and foremost... the wild birds." These vectors, he argues, carry disease.

And when it comes to disease, avian flu, of course, springs to mind. "The natural ecology of those viruses [that cause bird flu]... they are spread by wild birds, primarily by migrating," says Glisson. "So we know that the migration of birds from Asia to the U.S. is almost nonexistent... We're more concerned about avian influenza viruses that are already in the Americas, because of north-south migration."

Jim Perdue believes that the biggest risk with respect to an outbreak of avian influenza would come not from industrial producers, but from backyard farmers. "What worries me is more and more people raising backyard flocks that are totally unchecked... every one of our flocks is checked," he says.

Still, if even one infected chicken were to slip through the cracks at an industrial grower, it's hard not to imagine the virus sweeping through an entire flock virtually overnight in those crowded sheds. And, when it comes to more "everyday" worries, farmers like Salatin are more than happy to go up against the heavyweights. "I'd be happy to swab-test my chickens for salmonella, listeria, campylobacter, you name it..." His chickens, tested by an independent lab, register lower bacteria counts than industrially produced chickens, according to Pollan.

Who is right? Who is wrong? It's hard to say, but all we know is that whether it's done in a factory or outdoors, killing chickens is messy business. Pollan puts it best when he says, "... no matter how well it is masked or how far it is hidden away, this death smell — and the reality that gives rise to it — shadows the eating of any meat, industrial, organic, or whatever."