Vol. 9, No. 8
Feb. 22-28, 2001
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Memo to Maryland:
Hang Tough on Chicken Waste Rules

This issue smells, and it affects the entire Chesapeake Bay.

More than 300 people turned out recently at an Eastern Shore meeting to complain about new state rules requiring poultry companies to begin taking a responsibility they have shirked for years.

They were chicken farmers, poultry plant workers, Farm Bureau members and local politicians feeling the heat from all three. They were rallied to Easton High School by the poultry industry for the first of three hearings on the renewal of wastewater treatment permits for the big companies that operate in Maryland.

The issue was the new 'co-permitting' rule that required companies to help farmers get rid of the tons of chicken manure that pile up on the Eastern Shore - and often ends up choking the Chesapeake Bay and tributaries with nutrient pollution.

To hear the poultry industry tell it, any regulation that aims to improve the environment will close chicken farms immediately and drive companies to friendlier states. We doubt seriously that this would happen, and we think that these big companies - Perdue, Allen and Tyson Foods - should be ashamed of themselves for manipulating growers in so cynical a fashion.

A primer about the modern poultry industry is in order. Of all the farm industries, nothing is quite like poultry. The big companies require that farmers sign contracts in which they agree to rigid specifications for chicken houses. Company-owned trucks haul the birds to company slaughterhouses, and the wrapped product appears in the store with company logos.

In business, this is called "vertical integration." The same company owns every facet of production from farm gate to dinner plate. They own the chickens and they own the antibiotic-laced chicken feed. At the end of the day, what the farmers own (besides pennies-per-pound profit) is the chicken manure, which the companies refer to as "litter."

The new rule requiring companies to begin taking responsibility for chicken waste stems from the outbreak a few years ago of Pfiesteria, which damaged fishing and tourism along the Chesapeake Bay. The Maryland Department of the Environment wants to improve the health of rivers and streams, which suffer when algae blooms from nitrogen and phosphorous in agricultural runoff use up oxygen.

Maryland should not succumb to the tactics of an industry that treats its farmers and the environment in the same coldly calculating way.

Copyright 2001
Bay Weekly