Dark Meat: The Shady Business of Industrial Chicken

Carole Morison was not born into farming. She married into it, joining her husband Frank on his third-generation farm in Pocomoke City, Maryland. In the mid-1980s, she and Frank began raising chickens for Perdue, in chicken houses built, according to Morison, to Perdue’s precise specifications: "They brought out the blueprints for the poultry houses, the required equipment, everything."

In 2007, Carole was approached by Robert Kenner, director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary, Food, Inc., and asked to appear in the film to shed a little light on the otherwise windowless world of industrial chicken farming. Morison readily agreed. After all, she was no stranger to farmer activism. In the 1990s, she co-founded and served as Executive Director of the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, a group formed to hold poultry companies accountable for industry-wide abuses affecting poultry industry workers, farmers, the chickens, and the environment.

Perdue, on the other hand, was less enthusiastic about having one of its contract farmers step into the spotlight. A few minutes of screen time - during which Morison opened the doors of her chicken house and showed the film crew her operation - spawned a series of threatening letters from the company. A year later, the Morisons and Perdue would part ways - their contract termination serving as stark acknowledgment that the Morisons’ notions about raising chickens in a manner fair to both farmer and chicken did not mesh with those held by the industry.

Who owns this manure?

Over the years, in fact, Morison had many reasons to suspect that she and the company were not necessarily on the same team. That sense was heightened during the late-1990s pfiesteria outbreak along the Eastern Shore. Pfiesteria, a dinoflagellate responsible for harmful algal blooms, kills fish and is harmful to humans, causing memory loss, headaches, skin rashes, upper respiratory irritation, muscle cramps, and gastrointestinal problems. The outbreak has been tied to animal waste - something Eastern Shore chicken farms produce in large quantities.

By the terms of the contract, Perdue owned the chickens. According to the industry, however, any environmental impacts associated with the waste were not its problem. Morison thought it ridiculous that the same companies that dictated how farms operated were now saying that none of this was their fault. Morison remembers questioning them about the situation: "Whose manure is this? I own other animals on the farm and I’m responsible for their mess. These guys own the chickens but are not responsible for their waste. It’s crazy."

Darkness descends

From the start, says Morison, the chickens were raised in confinement, spending their entire six to seven week lives before slaughter inside the chicken houses. "Being as I was not born a farmer, I just assumed that’s the way chickens were raised." In the beginning, however, the degree of confinement was decidedly less claustrophobic. Those first houses built to Perdue’s specifications were open-walled, with clear curtain sides that at least provided the birds with fresh air and sunlight.

Then darkness descended. If Perdue didn’t like seeing Morison in the spotlight, it was even less happy to see light shining on its chickens. Long before the Food, Inc. crew interviewed Morison, the industry decided that all that outside air and sunlight available to the chickens via the open-walled houses did not suit its needs. Farmers had to switch to blackout curtains to keep the birds more lethargic. Morison was troubled by the change in behavior she observed:

"When we had clear curtains, the chickens were still active inside the houses. They would run around and play this little game, sort of 'practice fighting,' jumping up and down at each other when they just started to get their feathers - like adolescents feeling their oats. But once you put the black curtains on, they were sedate. Just eat, drink and sit around. You had to shuffle when you went through the houses because if you didn’t, if you picked up your feet in a normal walk, you were likely to step on chickens because they would not even try to get out of the way."

Morison was also unnerved by the rapid growth and what it would do to their systems: "Once they got close to processing time, maybe two weeks prior, they’d sometimes flip over from heart attacks. The heart attacks really bothered me because there was nothing really wrong with these chickens except that they grew too fast for what their bone structure and internal organs could keep up with."

Eventually, the dissonance got to be too much for Morison. "When I got to the point where I was kind of numb to it, it struck me - how did I get like this? When you are cramming so many in and they can’t move and it’s wall-to-wall chickens, I thought ‘There is really no sense in this.’"

For the Morisons, the breaking point came when Perdue mandated new, fully enclosed structures. The Morisons refused - not only because of the effect on the birds, but because it would have set them back $150,000. (Farmers typically foot the bill for any company-mandated changes in the houses.) Perdue had been wrangling with the Morisons over "biosafety" rules - which Carole allegedly broke by allowing the film crew on the premises. This refusal to install new houses, however, finally provided the company with a more concrete reason for contract termination. Ironically, it came three weeks after the company had given the Morisons an "outstanding producer" award. Severing ties with Perdue, says Morison, was fine with them, however: "By that time, we’d had enough."

New gig

Morison and her husband no longer raise chickens. She has not, however, abandoned the issue. She stays busy, touring the country and warning others of the pitfalls of contract farming under Big Poultry. "Mostly what I’m doing now is a lot of education. I do different speaking engagements, for all ages and audiences, comparing industrial production with alternative methods such as free range and the [Animal Welfare Institute’s own] Animal Welfare Approved program."

Morison wants the public to understand the true cost of food, and how the final price tag isn’t always an indication of how much we pay: "The argument has always been that the industrial way is providing cheap food for everyone. But then, if you look at the real cost of cheap chicken, if you add in the environmental issues, the public health issues, the below poverty wages of industry employees - all of which the taxpayers eventually pay for - how cheap is the chicken? If you start adding all these costs in, it is not any cheaper than that of free range chicken."

Given the enormous price that industrial farming extracts from the chickens themselves, it is clear that humane farming is the better bargain - both economically and ethically.