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New Book Explains How Perdue’s “Chickenizing” Changed the World

Almost a century ago, an unknown railway clerk on Maryland’s Eastern Shore revolutionized the world’s way of farming.

His name was Arthur Perdue and he’d never even been a farmer.  But he was brilliant in understanding the importance of transportation and organization in moving large numbers of chickens from rural areas up to big cities like Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York.

The story of how Perdue’s business inspired a global revolution in how hogs, cows and other farm animals are raised in factory-like conditions is told in a new book by Dr. Ellen Silbergeld, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.  It’s called “Chickening Farms and Food: How Industrial Meat Production Endangers Workers, Animals and Consumers,” published by Johns Hopkins University Press.

  Dr. Silbergeld, who has been studying the poultry industry for many years, describes how Perdue changed animal farming forever.

 “The first thing he did was he didn’t own the farms,” Silbergeld said.  “And, you know, I’m the granddaughter of a farmer, so I know that that’s really tough work.  Nobody gets really rich being a farmer.  It’s down the line that people make the big bucks.  So he really focused on the slaughter house.  That was the key point.  And if he owned the slaughterhouses, then all of the farmers were going to have to bring their chickens to him, and he could set the price.  And then all of the retailers and wholesalers would have to come to him, to get consumer products, and he would set the price.  So it was really the economic sweet spot.”

The system that Perdue promoted was of the company owning the chickens and dictating all the terms. The contract farmers that raised the chickens owned only the buildings, the manure, and large amounts of debt. In structure and geography, the system closely mirrored that of cotton sharecroppers who were taken advantage of after the Civil War in the south, Silbergeld writes in her book.

The tremendous financial success of Perdue Farms Inc. and its many copycats around the world have  had a harmful impact on water quality in the Chesapeake Bay and elsewhere, as the industrial-scale animal production buildings generate a vast amount of manure.

But Silbergeld writes in the book that there is also a dangerous human health implication of this new system, because the meat companies back in the 1940’s and 1950s’ started dosing the animal feed with antibiotics to boost the pounds produced.  The problem was that this over-use generated antibiotic resistance among bacteria, disarming the most important weapons that doctors use to save the lives of humans from disease.

 “Agricultural use of antibiotics for nontherapeutic, nonmedical purposes, is the main driver in the global crisis in antibiotics,” Silbergeld said. “I mean, according to the World Health Organization, we are standing at the wall of the end of the antibiotic era.”

Over the last 14 years, the Perdue company says it has been reducing its use of antiobiotics. And this June, Perdue announced that it would require more light and better conditions in the chicken houses of contract farmers.

But Silbergeld and others say this doesn’t solve the biggest problems and that Perdue and other meat companies still need to do more.  Some environmentalists have called for a moratorium on new poultry houses on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.  Silbergeld warns that this would not work.

“A moratorium without a goal is really not going to solve the problem, although I understand the popular concern and drive for it,” Silbergeld said.

The real solution, according to Silbergeld, is to treat today’s livestock farms as what they really are: Necessary industries that require the same kind of intensive government oversight as the auto industry with strong, prescriptive regulations that protect the environment and public health.

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.