Hot off the press: Perdue, America’s third largest producer of standard CAFO (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations) meat chickens, which already owns Coleman, is now getting into the pork, beef, lamb, and cage-free egg business. They’re buying Niman Ranch, the largest provider of your favorite carnitas to Chipotle. Here’s why I’m concerned, and what you can do:
Let’s Look at Perdue’s Track Record…
Perdue has been sued by The Humane Society for fraud as a result of labeling chickens “humanely raised” and “purely all-natural”, because they engage in such practices as letting birds go without food and water for extended periods.
“Companies such as Perdue are exploiting the dramatic growth of consumer demand for products that meet higher animal welfare standards,” said Jonathan Lovvorn, senior vice president and chief counsel for Animal Protection Litigation at The HSUS. “Slapping ‘humanely raised’ stickers on the same old factory farmed products is not going to cut it with either consumers or the courts.”
Luckily for Perdue, a federal court turned down the case. The major defense point for Perdue is no reasonable consumer would expect “humanely raised” to also mean “humane slaughter”. Perdue regularly practices the shackling of live birds en route to slaughter. These practices, according to the USDA, fall outside the protections of the federal Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and are thus afforded no federal humane regulation or oversight at all.
Another suit was brought against Perdue for pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, by allowing excessive chicken manure to drain into it. According to a Washington Post Article, Perdue won this case, claiming that they do not own these farms, and only purchase the chickens from “family farms”.
Large-scale CAFO protein production is also a huge consumer of soil destructing, mono-culture, grain production. Chickens and pigs consume large amounts of grain. According to a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, grain subsidies between 1996 to 2005, led to discounts being awarded to CAFOs worth almost $4 billion per year. This results in CAFO meat being incredibly cheap for the consumer, as well as HUGE profits for the large companies that produce it.
CAFOs are typically located in small towns. These gigantic animal factories harm communities through air, soil and water pollution, their notoriously substandard treatment of workers, and by decreasing property values. These communities are burdened with the fallout from CAFOs, yet the companies are not invested in the local economy. As farmers convert to raising birds for large companies, they commonly grow deep in debt. In order to comply with regulations required by companies like Perdue, farmers must invest heavily in infrastructure, are under constant pressure to produce more birds for less money, and make little margin for their efforts. Farmers who once had a direct relationship with consumers, become solely dependent on large companies like Perdue, a relationship not terribly far removed from indentured servitude.
Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria
Routine antibiotic use by CAFOs is another enormous issue, which has led to a major human healthcare crisis. Antibiotic-resistant strains of pathogens like Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA) and uropathogenic E. coli are hospitalizing and killing tens of thousands of people every year. More and more foodbourne illnesses from animal bacteria like Salmonella, Escherichia coli, and Campylobacter are being reported every year. These bacteria are a direct result of dirty, overcrowded living conditions of stressed and sick animals in a CAFO system.
The entire CAFO system is only possible because of cheap oil, a non-renewable resource. As the price of oil inevitably increases, the fossil fuels used to grow the grain, transport feed and animals, and in the processing of the protein, will become financially unsustainable. The writing is on the wall. Oil is limited and therefore cannot continue to be as economical as it has been. Thus, animals grown in CAFO conditions will no longer be as affordable as they used to be. It’s just a matter of time.
But, Maybe Perdue Wants to Do the Right Thing…
One thought you might be having about this buyout, is perhaps Perdue sees that Niman’s niche, being “naturally grown” is a growing sustainability concern and they need to change their practices. I’m not sure I believe this. What tends to happen during these buyouts, is the parent company looks to cut corners and create “efficiencies”. Niman Ranch has already seen the fallout of lowered standards. Bill Niman left the company in 2007 because of conflicts with the new leadership regarding the use of antimicrobials and animal cruelty.
So, Who Can We Trust?
It’s important to be wary of that cute brand you love and trust from your natural foods store. According to Cornucopia Institute, in 1995 there were 81 independent organic processing companies in the United States. A decade later, Big Food had gobbled up all but 15 of them.
Image credit: Dr. Phil Howard, Associate Professor in the Department of Community Sustainability at Michigan State, via Cornucopia Institute, click here to download the text PDF.
Major changes since the last version (May 2013) include WhiteWave’s December 2013 acquisition of Earthbound Farm, the nation’s largest organic produce supplier, for $600 million, said Howard. Additionally, Coca-Cola acquired a 10% stake in Green Mountain Coffee for $1.25 billion, and Bimbo Bakeries (Mexico) purchased Canada Bread from Maple Leaf Foods (Canada) for $1.7 billion.
The chart shows that many iconic organic brands are owned by the titans of junk food, processed food and sugary beverages—the same corporations that spent millions to defeat GMO labeling initiatives in California and Washington. General Mills (which owns Muir Glen, Cascadian Farm, and LaraBar), Coca-Cola (Honest Tea, Odwalla), J.M. Smucker (R.W. Knudsen, Santa Cruz Organic), and many other corporate owners of organic brands, contributed big bucks to deny citizens’ rights to know what is in their food. More information on this topic can be found at Cornucopia Institute.
Small is Beautiful
I’m not saying that big is terrible, but when it comes to food production, buying directly from the producer is always the best way to ensure you’re getting what you’re paying for. Find a farm, through LocalHarvest.org or Eatwild.com and develop a relationship directly with the farmer. Visit the farm. Ask questions. Read my book. This way you’ll know what questions to ask and what a sustainable farm should look like.
Don’t assume that the government or a big business food company has your best interests in mind. Another important step is to support organizations like The Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund, which supports YOUR right to buy food from the producer of your choice – and they also provide legal protection to farmers facing unnecessary meddling from Uncle Sam. There are also some important pieces of legislation coming up regarding GMO labeling and small-scale meat processing, that you can learn more about here , and take direct action.