Before We Talk Lettuce… Poultry Waste
By Elena Day
Michele Obama may be working very hard to get Americans to make healthier food choices but meanwhile the Obama administration is poised to support the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture’s so-called cost-cutting measures in the poultry processing industry that will make all that chicken and turkey we eat less healthy. (I say “so-called” because in the end the consumer suffers and “pays” when sickened by E. coli or Salmonella-contaminated meat.)
Poultry processing is already a dirty business with high fecal contamination rates and high incidence of worker injuries from repetitive slicing, carving and yanking. The new legislation dubbed by Food and Water Watch the “Filthy Chicken Rule” would increase line speeds in processing plants from 140 birds per minute to 175. (140 birds per minute translates into 20,000 cuts per day.)
Hundreds of federal inspectors would be eliminated from the processing lines. Inspections would be essentially privatized. Plant workers with no training would be charged with identifying and removing tainted chickens/turkeys. Poultry processing plants already use toxic, bacteria-killing chemicals like chlorine and peracetic acid to remove contaminants that escape notice at current, already breakneck, speeds.
Since the USDA began work on this plan in 2011, the National Chicken Council has spent more than $500,000 annually lobbying Congress, five times its average. You can write the USDA to rescind its “Modernization of Poultry Slaughter Inspection” rule at http://bit.ly/1eGDakZ.
Incidences of failings in poultry and meat inspections by the Food Safety and Inspection Service at port(s) of entry have increased recently under USDA Secretary Vilsnack. This is particularly troubling since the USDA plans to expand meat and poultry imports from Brazil and China. Both countries have weak food safety systems.
Poultry waste is “big” on the Maryland and Virginia Eastern Shore, and in Delaware. (Closer to home, in the Shenandoah Valley, we have a large number of poultry operations.) Agricultural runoff from farm fields saturated with poultry waste from contract growers is a primary contributor to the wretched condition of the Chesapeake Bay.
Maryland has attempted to get rid of those billion and a half pounds of phosphorus-laden poultry waste generated every year with the Manure Transport Program (MTP). Initiated in 1999, the MTP offers up to $20 a ton to move poultry waste off contract farms and out of the Bay watershed.
Four companies account for all contract chickens on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Perdue has the lion’s share. According to the Maryland Dept. of Budget and Management, between 2008 and 2010 Perdue, with annual sales of $4.8 billion, was paid $2.5 million by the MTP to remove waste from its contract farms. MTP is often termed a corporate welfare program.
The small fraction of the manure that Perdue picks up is used in its AgriRecycle enterprise. In 2001 Perdue began pelletizing chicken litter and marketing it as “organic” fertilizer.
Perdue claims that it contributes half the money for the MTP program; however, it is more than likely that it is passing on costs of the MTP to its contract farmers.
Perdue, Tysons and other Big Ag poultry corporations provide the contract grower with chicks, feed, medication and technical advisors to supervise the production. The corporation, which calls itself “the integrator,” owns the birds and regularly insists on contract operator-paid upgrades in chicken housing facilities and equipment. When the chickens are ready for slaughter (about 6 weeks) the company picks them up and the grower is paid by the pound. Growers compete with one another as to price/pound and are subject to contract termination at any time at the discretion of the integrator. The integrator might be well called “the terminator” as many contract growers end up losing their family farm when forced to invest in new buildings and equipment or when contracts are arbitrarily terminated.
Recently, the Poultry Fair Share Act was introduced in the Maryland State Legislature. It would charge Perdue and the other big three integrators five cents a bird to increase funding for the Chesapeake Restoration Fund (CRF.) CRF is wholly funded by Maryland taxpayers. (Tax-paying Baltimore residents pay $60 per year out of an average salary of $23,853 for Bay restoration efforts.) Big Ag chicken pollutes the Bay and contributes nothing to the CRF. Gov. O’Malley immediately threatened to veto the Poultry Fair Share Act, which has little likelihood of passage.
There are no legislative efforts in Virginia to regulate poultry waste.
The average American now consumes 84 pounds of chicken per year, twice the poundage of 40 years ago.
When I began this article, I wanted to talk lettuce. But I got caught up in chicken. We’ll save lettuce for April. Just know, lettuce is my favorite crop to grow. We eat lots of it and we eat our own, homegrown, all year. We eat it in salads and what we call lettuce bomb sandwiches. A lettuce bomb is lots of it piled on a fried egg and cheese sandwich. We’ve got plenty of head lettuce in the hoop house. It has frozen and thawed many times this winter. It survives, even when we registered 2° F.