Back in 1950 whole chickens sold for an average of $0.43 per pound. Indexed for inflation that would come to $4.23 a pound today. That would be the cost for a non-organic, farm raised chicken, usually fed farm raised corn, grain and garden scraps.
They no longer offer this type of farm raised chickens in grocery stores.
The industry has developed a bird that grows unusually fast, the cornish cross. This hybrid will reach 6 to 7 pounds in just 45 days being fed only 12 to 14 pounds of feed.
In America we raise 8.9 billion of these meat chickens per year in windowless, dusty, ammonia and feces ridden buildings, similar to the ones egg laying chicken live in. Chickens are exempted from the federal animal protection laws. The broilers pens are never cleaned in the 45 days the broiler lives. Each one has less space than a 8.5” x 11” piece of paper. One typical operation houses 25,000 birds in a 500’ x 40’ building that is inaccessible to anyone but the owner of the facility. Water and feed are automated and the main job for the owner is to go in and pick up and record the dead birds.
Many “ag gag” laws make it illegal to take pictures of these chickens and their conditions.
These chickens have never seen the sunlight, the grass or an edible bug.
Cancer (mareks) is common, even though all these chickens are vaccinated for it. Skeletal deformities, lung infections, heart, and liver disease and developmental disorders make the chicken unable to live much past about 45 days. By then they are so obese they can no longer walk (not that there is any room to walk but they do need to stand up to drink. Many die because they cannot.)
The result is a 4 pound dressed bird with a huge breast for as little as a dollar a pound. Man has developed the efficient, industrial chicken.
GE soy and corn with antibiotics, vitamin D (remember they never see the sunshine) and other additives, make up their limited diet.
29.9 million pounds of antibiotics were used in 2011 on industrial livestock farms. That is four times the amount people were prescribed. American industrial farms use 300 milligrams of antibiotics (a standard dose for a human to prevent infection) to produce one kilogram (2.2 pounds) of meat.
In 1991 the Atlanta Constitution did a special report on the poultry industry. 81 federal poultry inspectors interviewed said that thousands of birds tainted or stained with feces, which a decade ago (1981) would have been condemned, are rinsed in chlorinated water and sold daily. Poultry plants salvage meat, cutting away visibly diseased or contaminated sections, and selling the rest as packaged wings, legs or breasts.
Richard Simmons, inspector at a ConAgra plant said “Practically every bird now, no matter how bad, is salvaged… I would not want to eat it. I would never, in my wildest dreams, buy cut-up parts at a store today.”
USDA Inspector Ronnie Sarratt: “I’ve had birds that had yellow pus visibly coming out of their insides, and I was told to save the breast meat off them and even save the second joint of the wing. You might get those breasts today at a store in a package of breast fillets. And you might get the other in a pack of buffalo wings”
Inspectors used to condemn all birds with air sacculitus, a disease that causes yellow fluids and mucus to break up into the lungs. In an 1989 article in Southern Exposure, USDA inspector Estes Philpott of Arkansas estimated that he was pressured to approve 40 percent of air sac birds that would have been condemned 10 years before.
The industry has greatly lowered the cost, but at what price to our health, our environment, and our morality. Growers tend to be concentrated in areas near the processing plants putting environmental and tax burdens on large areas to deal with huge concentrations of waste and pollution to the community and the waterways. The corporations are not responsible for the waste cleanup. A typical poultry house produces 250 tons of manure per year plus the dead chicken bodies.
The abuse does not stop with the chicken or the environment.
A 2001 study found that among commercial chicken growers, 71% live below the poverty line. They are contractors, meaning the corporations do not offer any guarantees or pay into social security and insurance.
The grower signs a contract with large corporations like Tyson or Pilgrim’s. The Farm Service Administration make loans available at a low interest rate. The initial investment, according to a University of Georgia report, is typically $500,000 to $800,000. Periodically the corporation makes the grower purchase new upgraded equipment, that is added to the previous debt. The company can cancel the contract due to many reasons, such as not putting enough weight on the birds, or refusing to borrow more money to upgrade, usually leaving the grower with no other purchaser/processor available in that area. The grower typically makes less than $20,000 profit annually.
The corporations own the birds, feed mills, packaging operations and transportation. The only thing the grower owns are the buildings, the equipment and the debt.
Processing the chickens is a highly automated operation, but human employees are required. Recently the USDA decided to allow poultry be processed in China. They also wish to reduce the number of inspectors from four per factory scale plant to one. These plants are processing 175 birds per minute. They have removed the country of origin labels.
All this is to say that $1.29 a pound chicken is not a great deal for us, for our children, or for the planet. I sell my chicken for $7.00 per pound and make a modest profit. They are fed greens, bugs, and fresh, organic feed from Coyote Creek Organic Feed in Elgin, Texas. Laughing Frog Farm chickens spend a lot of time being chickens–scratching, hunting and roaming. These Freedom Ranger chickens could not survive indoor living nor the conditions that go with it.
It is important to note that purchasing “organic” chicken only changes the feed and the fact they have “access” to the outdoors. It does not mean they go outdoors.
In 1950 there were 1,636,705 farms that sold 581,038,865 chickens = 355 per farm.
In 2007 we had 27091 farms sell 8,914,828,122 chickens = 329,070 per farm
I don’t think I was included in that total because I would bring the average way down.
To read more about the industry Pew Trusts has a good study:
youtube of a discontent chicken grower: