That Tasty Chicken Sandwich Is Brought to You by a Stomach-Turning Industry

September 11, 2019 | 12:27 pm
Chris Bloom/Flickr
Karen Perry Stillerman
Deputy Director

This was the summer of chicken. America’s favorite fowl made frequent headlines, though one story claimed much of the public’s attention. I’m talking, of course, about the Great Chicken Sandwich War of 2019, in which giant fast-food companies battled to sell ever more deep-fried mass-produced industrial chicken breasts to the public. It was entertaining, I guess…until it got crazy.

But the sandwich frenzy may have crowded out more important chicken-related stories.

Poultry is deeply entwined with some of the most intractable and painful issues of our day—race, immigration, income inequality and poverty, and corporate power—and that has become increasingly evident in recent months. In early August, hundreds of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers swarmed poultry processing plants in Mississippi, arresting nearly 700 workers. The raids themselves made big headlines for their cruelty, with some children temporarily orphaned after their first day of school after both parents were snatched by ICE agents at work. Still, multiple stories-behind-the story have received considerably less attention.

For example, fewer Americans likely heard the revelation, exposed in court filings, that chicken processors in the state appear to have violated immigration law by knowingly hiring undocumented immigrant workers. Or the news just last week—on the heels of a holiday nominally celebrating the nation’s workers—that corporate executives and consultants for a number of chicken companies have plotted secretly for years to depress wages for their mostly immigrant workforce.

The prodigious power of poultry

These stories paint a picture of an exploitative and at times lawless industry that draws its power from its size and concentration. Market concentration is increasing in many industries, including meat and poultry processing. Broiler chicken processing is particularly highly concentrated, with just five companies—Tyson Foods Inc., Pilgrim’s Pride Corp., Sanderson Farms Inc., Perdue Farms Inc. and Koch Foods Inc. (no relation to the late David Koch)—reportedly controlling about 60 percent of the nation’s ready-to-cook chicken market.

With their outsize market power, these companies wield tremendous political clout in Washington and in the states where their contract farmers and processing plants are clustered: Georgia, Arkansas, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, and Texas. They’ve been very successful in lobbying policymakers for lax enforcement and regulations, and they’ve gotten away with evading immigration laws, underpaying vulnerable workers, and also endangering and abusing those workers on the job.

Big Chicken is a terrible boss

The facilities that slaughter, dismember, and pack most of the nearly 57 billion pounds of chicken produced in this country are incredibly hazardous. Workers at poultry plants are at great risk of illness and injury, suffering high rates of carpal tunnel syndrome, amputations and hospitalizations, and exposure to chemicals and fumes. A 2016 Government Accountability Organization report acknowledged that obtaining complete information about injuries and illnesses in the meat and poultry industry is difficult because they are likely under-reported, noting that “vulnerable workers such as immigrants and noncitizens may fear for their livelihoods and feel pressured not to report injuries.”

But that’s not all. Poultry workers are also routinely subjected to harassment and discrimination. In fact, just 12 months before this summer’s raids at Koch Foods and other companies’ plants in Mississippi, Koch settled a $3.75 million class action suit in which the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission had charged the company with sexual harassment, national origin and race discrimination as well as retaliation against a class of Hispanic workers at one of those very plants.

And it could all get a lot worse: short staffing at processing plants in the wake of this summer’s mass arrests will put pressure on workers who remain to work harder, faster, and to take on unfamiliar tasks, increasing the risk of accidents. Moreover, already vulnerable workers, now increasingly fearful of raids, could be further discouraged from reporting abuse at their workplaces.

Meanwhile, the poultry industry is a poster child for the Trump administration’s seemingly never-ending quest for deregulation, making a terrible situation even worse. The National Employment Law Project reported earlier this year that federal workplace safety enforcement generally has declined since the beginning of 2017, even as workplace deaths are rising. And last year, Trump’s USDA contravened science in giving chicken plants waivers to speed up their processing lines, which will almost certainly increase injuries.

Farmers call a foul on Big Fowl

And then there’s the exploitation of chicken farmers, more than 97 percent of whom operate through contracts with one of the big chicken processing conglomerates. It’s a vertically integrated system in which these powerful companies own the birds and control (and frequently change) the terms under which they are raised. Contracts with chicken farmers are so lopsided that the Small Business Administration concluded in 2018 that chicken growers may no longer qualify for small business loans because they’re not actually independent businesses at all.

Tales abound of contract farmers treated unfairly, and even driven to bankruptcy, by the shifting terms and demands of their corporate overlords—take, for example, Karen and Mitchell Crutchfield, who went bankrupt raising chickens for Tyson in Arkansas and joined a class-action suit in 2017 alleging that the big five chicken companies colluded to keep farmers in debt and underpaid. That suit was unsuccessful. (Check out the documentary, Under Contract, for more farmer stories.)

And as bad as the system is for white chicken farmers like the Crutchfields, the industry’s treatment of black farmers has been worse—much worse. A must-read investigative report by ProPublica revealed how Koch Foods systematically discriminated against Black chicken farmers in Mississippi and used its market control to drive them out of business. This is just part of a larger problem in agriculture, in which Black farmers have been historically marginalized and discriminated against. While the numbers of Black US farmers are now rising, fewer own land or earn top income. A recent blockbuster investigative report showed that even under the Obama administration, Black farmers continued to face civil rights violations at the hands of the USDA, the agency that is supposed to serve them.

Time to rethink chicken?

So, who benefits from cheap chicken produced through exploitation and shady business practices? Some would argue it’s good for consumers, especially low-income ones, who get a relatively healthy protein source at an affordable price. Though in my mind, higher wages and incomes that allow more consumers to afford fairly produced food would be a better solution.

But back to that tasty chicken sandwich. This summer’s warring parties—Popeye’s and Chick-Fil-A—and their competitors depend on exploited labor on the farm and at processing plants to sell fried chicken sandwiches for pocket change. The system is working for them: love it or hate it (and there are 1.6 million reasons to hate it), Chick-Fil-A is now the nation’s third largest restaurant chain, with a reported $10.46 billion in sales in 2018.

And of course the system is also working for the Big Chicken processors, at least so far. But increased media scrutiny and a string of lawsuits may bring change. One suit brought by food distributors and retailers (including unlikely hero, Walmart) accuses industry leaders of colluding to fix chicken prices. Court filings allege that the companies used a secretive information-sharing service to violate antitrust laws and inflate chicken prices between 2008 and 2016. The US Department of Justice intervened in June, which may lead to criminal charges. In August, Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, and Perdue acknowledged receiving DOJ subpoenas in the case (paywall).

Perhaps the various lawsuits will begin to rein in the industry’s abuses. There’s also legislation pending in Congress that would address concentration in the food and agriculture sectors broadly. If passed, it would place a moratorium on new agribusiness mergers—which wouldn’t do much for this already heavily concentrated industry, unfortunately—but it would also improve antitrust enforcement.

Another way to address the market power of Big Chicken is to develop new or alternative supply chains for independent small and mid-sized poultry producers. For example, USDA’s Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program describes another approach to raising chicken, not meant to totally replace the current system, but a way to provide farmers with another, fairer production option.

Until then, we should all think hard about what’s between the buns of that tasty sandwich.