|An automated chicken inspection system. The system can scan up to 140 birds a minute and signals a human inspector when a closer look is needed. Photo: Keith Weller, USDA Agricultural Research Service.
Feature: Fill Your Plate With Chicken Stories
By Christine Heinrichs
Chicken. It’s what’s on the menu in homes, fast-food chains and high-end restaurants.
The National Chicken Council, an industry organization, cites USDA statistics that show per capita consumption of chicken in the United States has more than tripled since 1960, while beef and pork consumption has declined.
Supplying those restaurant and grocery needs depends on a $95 billion national industry with a complicated vertically integrated structure in which a company such as Tyson Foods — the country’s largest food company — owns everything related to the poultry supply chain: hatcheries, breeder flocks, grow-out flocks, feed mills, processing plants, transportation and marketing.
Like other big industries, this one has a big environmental footprint.
Chicken stories for those on the environmental beat include the impacts of pathogens that can spread to humans and wild birds, the pollution caused by large-scale poultry operations and the rise of backyard chickens as stars in the locavore movement.
Avian Influenza — not just a poultry problem
In chicken news, the big headline right now is Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, or HPAI.
The most recent HPAI epidemic continues to spread across the continent from east to west, following migratory bird routes. You can trace its progress and get information about individual incidents with this interactive tracking map.
HPAI spreads through animal-to-animal contacts between domestic flocks or wild birds. It is also spread through infected materials called fomites. For example, infected dust on shoes and truck wheels can carry it.
Chickens are the most vulnerable to HPAI. And industrial flocks are more vulnerable than flocks of standard or other breeds because of their genetic makeup and husbandry conditions.
HPAI is not considered a threat to cross over to humans, although people working in the industry occasionally contract it.
Many wild bird fatalities go unrecorded, but some are too obvious to miss. In Newfoundland and Labrador, HPAI wiped out thousands of puffins, gannets and murres this summer.
In May, Rebecca Poulson, who has been studying avian influenza for 15 years at the University of Georgia's Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, called the current avian flu epidemic “unprecedented” in terms of the number of birds, species and states in which it has been detected.
It’s the genetics
Commercial genetics predispose chickens to disease susceptibility.
Chickens are not genetically modified like corn or soy, but they are intensively bred to industrial standards and genetic uniformity. Their genetics are owned, the way GMO plant seeds are corporately owned. Contract farmers who raise the birds for large companies have to purchase chicks for each grow-out flock. Small flock raisers maintain genetic stock that would otherwise be lost.
|Backyard chickens. Photo: Peter Cooper, via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0).
Eighty percent of all chickens produced globally come from one of three companies: Cobb-Vantress, Hubbard and Ross. In 2014, that amounted to some 44 billion birds, according to Food Safety News.
These industrial chickens have been bred for rapid weight gain, reaching market weight in six to seven weeks, a process that takes 18 weeks or longer for heritage breeds.
Such rapid development results in birds that suffer from skeletal and cardiac problems, compromised immune systems and other disorders. Genetic uniformity in the flock means all the birds are similarly vulnerable.
Frank Reese of Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch in Kansas told me when I interviewed him for a story in the August/September 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry Magazine: “That’s exactly what’s wrong with the industrial genetics. All the biosecurity these plants say they’ve got isn’t doing a damn bit of good. It’s the genetics.”
Crowding in factory farms
Crowding chickens in mass poultry confinement houses increases the risk of disease transmission.
USDA and APHIS respond to HPAI by “depopulating” entire flocks that test positive, as well as those in the surrounding area that may have been exposed.
This process is so distasteful that it is rarely covered. The Guardian recently reported on one cull in Iowa that was particularly cruel. If there are industrial poultry farms in your area, this could happen to them.
Yet flock depopulation makes sense for managing HPAI. As with other influenzas, it is caused by a virus that mutates and recirculates every couple of years. Expect future outbreaks.
HPAI isn’t the only problem. There’s also antibiotic resistance, an emerging issue that threatens the effectiveness of antibiotic treatment for humans.
Crowded flocks of genetically
similar birds are a breeding ground
for all kinds of pathogens.
Crowded flocks of genetically similar birds are a breeding ground for all kinds of pathogens. Subclinical doses of antibiotics administered to chickens increase weight gain and suppress illness, but can allow pathogens to acquire antibiotic resistance.
Maryn McKenna wrote a whole book about this: “Big Chicken.” If you’re looking for a quote, she’s willing to comment as a subject-matter expert on the poultry industry, farm antibiotic use, bird flu and other related topics.
As this NPR ”Food for Thought” episode pointed out, large-scale chicken farms make poor neighbors, and their odor isn’t the only problem.
Runoff contaminated with manure, feathers, carcasses and other poultry detritus can pollute creeks, canals and groundwater with nitrogen and phosphorus, which can lead to bacteria and algae growth and low-oxygen “dead zones.”
Poultry farm waste is often poorly regulated. It contains viruses and bacteria such as E. coli, giardia and cryptosporidium.
Ammonia generated inside industrial poultry houses is ventilated with large fans. Not only does it smell terrible, but it can pollute the air and cause human health problems such as irritation and inflammation of the throat and nasal passages, coughing, watery eyes and asthma attacks.
Ammonia also breaks down chemically into nitrogen, further exacerbating the nitrogen pollution of groundwater.
Local food movement mascot
The chicken — small, portable, attractive and easy to keep — has become the mascot of the local food movement.
Little did I know when my first book, “How to Raise Chickens,” came out in 2007 that small backyard flocks were about to become a thing!
People in your audience are keeping chickens. They need to know how HPAI may affect them and their flocks.
Twenty years ago, the USDA simply
wanted to eradicate all backyard flocks,
as reservoirs of disease.
USDA has changed its approach over the years. Twenty years ago, the agency simply wanted to eradicate all backyard flocks, as reservoirs of disease. Now they have a biosecurity program called Defend the Flock, aimed at keeping small flocks safe and thus preventing disease spread.
There is also increasing recognition that those flocks are part of the supply chain. As grocery market shelves emptied and wholesalers ran out of stock in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, small-flock keepers stepped up to meet local needs for both eggs and meat.
The American Rescue Plan includes funding to broaden local supply chains by supporting small poultry producers.
Chicken stories everywhere
Chickens open a path to all kinds of stories, both inside and outside the environmental beat.
The Justice Department recently pursued three trials against poultry industry executives for price fixing, but was unable to get convictions, despite insider testimony. Socioeconomic and worker rights issues are also compelling subjects.
Local angles can bring important issues in this global industry home to smaller audiences and help them make sense out of what they are getting for such low prices.
On a good day, chickens can be a feel-good story. Many holidays have poultry associations — eggs at Easter, turkey at Thanksgiving. Local restaurants may feature poultry from area farms. There may be a poultry show nearby (though poultry exhibits are affected by HPAI outbreaks and other contagious diseases). The Livestock Conservancy champions heritage breeds of all species of livestock.
Don’t know much about chickens? This FoodPrint report can get you started.
The National Chicken Council has a lot of information about the industry on its site, with the usual caveat about industry lobbies.
State university extension offices are often good sources of information, such as this backgrounder from Penn State. Extension agents also lead 4-H chapters, which can be a source of local poultry stories.
Chicken stories are everywhere. Contact me for more ideas.
Christine Heinrichs covers environmental subjects on California's Central Coast. Her interests go beyond poultry to elephant seals, the Floating Offshore Wind Farm proposed off the coast and invasive weeds. She has been an SEJ member for more than 20 years. Find her books — “The Backyard Field Guide to Chickens,” “How to Raise Poultry” and “How to Raise Chickens” — at the American Poultry Association online store. Contact her at Christine.firstname.lastname@example.org.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 32. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.