The Industrial Broiler System: A Brief Debate
Following the publication of “Sunday Dinner Chicken: Alternatives to the Cornish Cross” in the Apr/May 2009 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine, a reader criticized my reference to industrial broiler production. Presented below is the reader’s comment, followed by my rebuttal (both in the Letters section of the June/July 2009 issue).
Letter to the Editor, Backyard Poultry:
Article Slanted Against Poultry Industry
I found the article “Sunday-Dinner Chicken: Alternatives to the Cornish Cross” by Harvey Ussery in the April/May 2009 issue to be misinformed and slanted against the poultry industry.
I am a Poultry Science major from Texas A&M University, and while I do agree that it should be noted to readers that the Cornish Cross is not the ideal breed for backyard flocks, the incorrect facts used to make the author’s point only perpetuate a false image of production in the broiler industry.
The author tries to reinforce a mischaracterization of the poultry industry as producing unhappy, hormone-pumped, crippled, filthy birds.
Ussery states that broilers are fed hormones and arsenic:
- The United States poultry industry does not feed growth hormones to any chicken it provides to consumers. The large birds you see in grocery stores have gotten that way through 30 years of selective breeding and increased knowledge in poultry nutrition. The biggest myth in the poultry world is that industry birds are given hormones. Please do your readers a favor and clear up this false statement.
- The arsenic given as a growth promoter is not the man-made Trivalent Arsenic that is highly toxic. It is an organic molecule that contains arsenic. These oxidized forms of arsenic are present in all top soils, have anti-coccidial properties, and have not been shown to be harmful to the birds nor to make the meat toxic for human consumption.
Ussery also states that he has been able to “successfully grow the Cornish Cross without growth hormones and antibiotic feeds.” I think it is important that your readers be informed that the Cornish Cross is a breed genetically selected by the poultry industry to produce large amounts of meat at the fastest rate and at the lowest feed conversion rate. While I am sure the author, in his backyard setting, could “substitute more intensive management input,” in his backyard setting he is not producing 10 billion birds annually—or approximately 40% of the chicken produced in the world—thus providing the cheapest source of meat available.
He proposes that, “One would think the industry would seek a sturdier bird with a more natural growth curve.” I ask, why would we think that? The industry seeks a large, feed-efficient bird that can continue to provide the supply that the consumers demand.
The poultry industry does not have the same motivations that a backyard producer does. While I do agree that your readers would not want a white-feathered bird that only sits and eats for six weeks, like the Cornish Cross, this author has taken to perpetuating the false conceptions of the way birds are treated in the poultry industry to make this point.
Harvey Ussery Responds:
Thank you for your thoughtful response to my article on alternative meat chickens. Since you broadened the discussion to a consideration of the broiler industry, I’ll follow your lead.
First, a couple of points you took issue with:
- Roxarsone (the trade name for the organic arsenic compounds added to poultry feeds) is neither as benign nor as inert as you imply. I won’t argue your contention that it has no toxic implications for the living birds or for people who eat them, despite my lively skepticism on that subject. Interestingly, you said nothing about the environmental effects of Roxarsone.
America’s commercial broiler flocks are fed two million pounds of Roxarsone per year, most of which is excreted unchanged, and the litter is spread far and wide as fertilizer on croplands. Roxarsone is soluble, that is, highly mobile in the environment, leaching to surface and groundwater systems. Many environmental factors degrade Roxarsone to inorganic forms of arsenic: mostly arsenate (toxic), but some arsenite (highly toxic). Such factors include sunlight (seen any of that around?), bacteria, presence of nitrates (plenty of that in chicken litter), and especially anaerobic conditions, as found in big wet piles of litter, subsoils, sediments under rivers and lakes, the full extent of real-world conversion to toxic arsenic species is unknown at this time. Readers as old as I am, however, remember reassurances—from agribusiness, the USDA, and regulatory agencies—that DDT was God’s gift to agriculture, a marvelous solution to insect threats, with no possibility of “collateral damage.” Until Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring convinced us otherwise, and DDT was banned. When will we make the same belated change of policy about Roxarsone? (The Europeans, not comforted by reassurances such as yours, have banned Roxarsone for a decade.)
- You point out that I was in error about the feeding of growth hormones to poultry. You are right, and I apologize to readers for misinforming them. What I should have said is this: “Though growth-stimulating hormones are routinely used in commercial beef and lamb production, such hormones are not fed to poultry and swine at this time. The poultry industry’s means of choice for boosting growth is the feeding of antibiotics—from day one to slaughter—a practice that encourages the development of antibiotic-resistant pathogens, and saturates soil and water systems with antibiotic residues. How big a problem is that? We don’t really know, but we’re engaged in a colossal scientific experiment to find out. We’re the guinea pigs—along with countless other species living downstream of this flood of antibiotic pollutants.”
As for broader issues of production in the poultry industry: Any reader who has been in a broiler house—as I have—will question your picture of benign conditions there. Modern broiler houses contain between 10,000 and 100,000 birds. A typical one is 20,000 square feet, and contains 22,000 to 26,000 growing broilers. That’s not much more space per bird than the size of a sheet of typing paper. Imagine standing shoulder to shoulder with tens of thousands of your fellows, ankle-deep in your own wastes, and tell me you wouldn’t be “unhappy” and “filthy.”
Implied in your letter is the mantra of agribusiness giants and industrial food purveyors: Mass production is necessary to “feed the world.” That argument would be more honestly stated: “Feeding a hungry world requires industrialized production of 10 billion birds annually, as the cheapest source of meat available, although wide-scale environmental pollution from this production model is a necessary and inevitable result.”
The contribution of the poultry industry to serious contamination (by nitrites, nitrates, phosphates, and more) of natural water systems—the Shenandoah River and the watershed into the Chesapeake Bay in my own area—is scarcely open to dispute. But of course, that is one of the “externalities” of the system, meaning: If it doesn’t have a cost to the industry itself, in specific dollar terms, it can simply be ignored.
Unfortunately, those “externalities” have a nasty habit of getting internalized—by all of us—as threats to our health from contaminated water, to say nothing of loss of species diversity and other cascading effects of spillover pollution downstream.
And what happens to the “feed the world” mantra when it turns out that the resulting dressed poultry is not fit to eat? If that sounds extreme, let the readers judge: In 2003, Consumer Reports tested randomly purchased samples of fresh broilers from supermarkets all over the country, and found that 49 percent were contaminated with salmonella and/or campylobacter. When CR repeated the survey in 2006, the situation had changed dramatically—for the worse: This time, 83 percent of samples were contaminated by those pathogens.
Perhaps that sort of bad news carries more weight than your well-intentioned reassurances. Perhaps it explains why readership of this magazine has increased in a mere three years from an initial 45,000 to a current 95,000. I doubt many of those readers are looking for light entertainment. More likely, they are seeking more wholesome and sustainable ways to “feed the world.” Starting with their children.