Does the Chicken Price Fixing Scandal Surprise Anyone?

The modern chicken industry is among the most egregious in the world. Worker abuse, animal abuse, abuse of small farmers, pollution of waterways, contaminated food products and financial wrongdoing regularly appear in the news. Big fines have no effect on an industry in which one company can make as much as $41 billion a year. Yes billion.

 The landscape is getting worse because the food behemoths are increasingly privatized. The USDA continues to allow chicken producers and meat producers in general to essentially self-police, a phenomenon which began with the institution of Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point or HACCP. Why let humane or hygiene considerations slow down profits?  It should surprise no one that government meat inspectors can be ignored or ridiculed at these privatized slaughter plants…when they don’t unabashedly switch loyalties.

How bad is the situation in U.S. slaughterhouses which mainstream media like to sanitize by calling food “packing” or “processing” plants? While the nation was busy watching Covid, the USDA allowed the top chicken slaughter plants to increase kill line speeds from 140 birds a minute to 175 birds per minute or three birds a second. Think about that. In addition to worker injuries and Covid transmission, this condemns even more birds to be boiled alive because they miss the stunner.

More? In 2007, Gourmet magazine published an expose by Daniel Zwerdling that estimated the number of chickens boiled alive at 180 million a year. Richard L. Lobb, a spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, said of the boilings “the process is over in a matter of minutes.”

Chick-fil-A Sues

This week Chick-fil-A, the nation’s largest chicken restaurant chain by sales, announced that it is suing 17 chicken producers including the well known Big Four, Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride and Sanderson Farms for price fixing. That an industry that boils animals alive and admits it would price fix is not a surprise.

This is hardly the first such lawsuit. In June, Pilgrim CEO Jayson Penn was indicted along with three other chicken industry executives for price fixing and six more execs were indicted in October. In a separate agreement, Pilgrim’s Pride has already said it would pay $110.5 in a plea agreement with the U.S. government over price fixing.

In the current lawsuit, Chick-fil-A says that after it declared it would start serving antibiotic-free meat, suppliers conspired to price fix on the deliverables. According to NBC news, the suit alleges “a number of Defendants communicated via phone and text message in order to share and coordinate confidential bidding and pricing information.”

The Big Four Are Not New To Scandals

Chickl-fil-a’s suit is far from the first time the Big Four have come under a legal microscope. Tyson has a rap sheet that includes many appalling charges:

* In June of 2019, 36,420 pounds of Tyson chicken nuggets were recalled due to rubber contamination.

*In March of 2019, Tyson recalled 12 million pounds of ready-to-eat Tyson chicken strip products for possible metal contamination.

* In 2008, Tyson was caught injecting eggs with the dangerous antibiotic gentamicin, linked to serious side effects. The previous year the government disallowed the Tyson slogan “Raised Without Antibiotics,” because the ionophores it adds to poultry feed are antibiotics.

* In 2003, Tyson pleaded guilty to violating the Clean Water Act with effluvia from its Sedalia, MO, facility and agreed to pay $7.5 million. But before its probation ended, Tyson was charged by the state of Oklahoma with polluting the Illinois River watershed.

* In 2001, Tyson was served with a federal indictment charging it paid smugglers to transport illegal workers from Mexico across the Rio Grande, after which they were supplied with phony social security cards and brazenly paid with corporate checks.

*A 2014 Reuters investigation of feed mill documents found “low doses of antibiotics were part of the standard diet for some flocks at five companies: Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, George’s and Koch.” Pilgrim’s Pride in particular added doses of bacitracin and monensin reported Reuters.

A different investigation found that Sanderson chicken tested positive for the antibiotic chloramphenical, banned in food animals, and amoxicillin. It also tested positive for residues of steroids, hormones, anti-inflammatory drugs and even ketamine, a hallucinogenic drug.

Food reporters are not the only ones calling out this sordid industry. In 2015, Alec Baldwin said, “If you eat chicken from Tyson Foods, you may be unknowingly supporting some of the worst animal abuse, including birds bred to grow so fast they’re in constant pain, extreme violence by desensitized workers, and gruesome deaths at the slaughterhouse.”

No one has to give up eating chicken to stop the worker, animal, environmental, consumer and economic abuse perpetrated by these criminal corporations. Plant based chicken is readily available at KFC, Jack in the Box and other restaurant outlets and at every grocery stores. Lab-grown chicken–real chicken without the slaughter and environmental blight–is also rapidly gaining approval.  No one who cares about workers, the environment, human health, corporate wrongdoing and animals should support these companies.

Martha Rosenberg is an investigative health reporter. She is the author of  Born With A Junk Food Deficiency: How Flaks, Quacks and Hacks Pimp The Public Health (Prometheus).