Moving Beyond Factory Farms: Pastured Poultry

It’s astonishing what you can not know about the place where you live. Me, for instance: I live mostly in Atlanta. I’ve lived here twice, once for 10 years as a newspaper reporter, and now — after a four-year break — for 15 months so far as a writer (and trailing spouse, which is how I got back here). Between working for one of the (formerly) largest papers in the country, liking long drives, and regularly indulging my ungovernable curiosity, I thought I knew Georgia pretty well.

I was wrong. Here’s what I learned about Georgia on Thursday:

  • It raises more meat chickens than any other place in the United States, about 1.4 billion of them a year.
  • That’s 15 percent of all the animals raised in confinement agriculture in the United States. Not just 15 percent of the chickens; 15 percent of everything.
  • All those chickens produce 2 million tons of poultry manure and litter a year, one-fifth of what the entire U.S. poultry sector produces.
  • That waste is applied on land — including land where other food crops are grown — from which it can run off and contaminate water supplies.
  • 40 to 80 percent of gut bacteria recovered from confinement chicken-houses are multi-drug resistant.
  • Caring for foodborne illness from organisms carried on chicken, and making up for lost productivity when people are made sick, costs about $2.4 billion per year.
  • Chicken catchers, who cage the birds on their way to slaughter, may lift 5,000 pounds in an hour. Slaughterhouse line workers may perform the same repetitive cutting motions 20,000 to 30,000 times in a work shift.
  • Slaughterhouses in Georgia kill 1 million chickens per week.
  • Poultry is exempt from humane slaughter regulations.

I learned these things — some of which certainly snapped my head back — via a report from a new advocacy group that debuted Thursday, Georgians for Pastured Poultry, with the mission to remake poultry production in the most-poultry-producing state.

The stats come from the group’s in-depth (72 pages; 317 footnotes!) report, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: The Impacts of Chicken Meat Factory Farming in the State of Georgia, which was also released Thursday. (PDFs of short and long versions are here.) The group is a coalition that includes Compassion in World Farming, Georgia Organics, the Sierra Club and the Fellowship of Southern Artisans, Farmers and Chefs, as well as individual farmers. Its goal isn’t only to raise awareness, but to create an economic environment that supports alternative poultry raising by demonstrating that there’s a market for sustainably raised chicken meat.

To that end, they’re maintaining a list of producers. But in a smart addition, they are also asking consumers to sign an online pledge that they prefer to eat and buy pastured poultry, in the hope that they’ll build enough of a list to demonstrate that consumer demand for alternatives is a market segment that should be listened to.

The burden of the scientific evidence is clear: Overuse and misuse of antibiotics in confinement agriculture create resistant organisms that can move off farms to the detriment of human health. If consumers worry about that, and they should, then they can vote with their dollars by supporting meat that is raised in less-intensive conditions — but only if they can find it. Georgians for Pastured Poultry could help solve that search, by linking would-be buyers to producers, and also by demonstrating the size of the consumer demand for alternatives.

Plus, let’s keep in mind: Consumers don’t vote only with their dollars. Agricultural use of antibiotics at this point is an argument of economics and politics, and the side in favor of continuing without change is well funded and well organized at making its views known. To the extent that Georgians for Pastured Poultry make visible the consumers — constituents — who want agricultural change to happen, it and other organizations like it could help balance the debate.

Here’s a companion documentary on conventional and alternative chicken-raising, also titled “Out of Sight, Out of Mind,” that Georgians for Pastured Poultry released Thursday as well.




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