If you live in the U.S. and frequent Costco, you’re probably familiar with their $4.99 rotisserie chicken. It’s one of the standard items Costco sells that pull in repeat customers. As reported by CNN:1
“The chickens have become almost a cult item. 91 million were sold last year, double the number from a decade earlier. They have their own Facebook page with nearly 13,000 followers. So Costco is willing to go to extreme lengths to keep its chickens at $4.99.”
However, as with all foods raised in concentrated animal feeding operations(CAFOs), this cheap fare comes with steep, hidden costs. CAFOs are a primary contributor to several problems, including environmental pollution and antibiotic-resistant disease.
The fact that Costco is willing to go to great lengths to keep the price of its chicken at rock bottom means the problems associated with its CAFOs are likely to only get worse. As reported by CNN,2 Costco is now planning on opening its very own poultry complex in Fremont, Nebraska, which will allow it to “control the production process from farm to store.”
One of the stated reasons for Costco’s decision to invest in its own poultry operation is because they’re having trouble procuring the right size broilers. Rotisserie chickens need to be right around 6 pounds, and many CAFO chickens today can go as high as 7 or 8 pounds,3 which are too large for the rotisserie.
Chicken Farming Isn’t What It Used to Be
Critics have rightfully pointed out that Costco’s move to open a 400,000 square-foot chicken CAFO in Nebraska will have negative repercussions for the environment. When interviewed by CNN, Randy Ruppert, a Fremont environmental activist, pointed out the facility will produce toxic runoff such as ammonia and nitrates.
He rightfully refers to it as “degenerative farming,” which it is. CNN also highlights the unfair contract agreements involved. A vast majority of American chicken farmers work under a contract system that shifts the financial risks to the farmers while providing them with few benefits.
Contract farmers are responsible for building and maintaining the barns, while the companies supply the chicks and feed and set all the rules. As noted by Robert Taylor, Professor Emeritus of agricultural economics at Auburn University, this type of contract “essentially makes the farmer an indentured servant” or “chicken house janitor.”4
As reported in a 2018 article5 in The Atlantic, a chicken farmer will typically need to take out a large loan, often in excess of $1 million, to build the facilities. They must then raise the chickens according to the chicken company’s rules. Once the chickens are fully grown, they’re sent off to the chicken company’s processing facility for slaughtering, packaging and distribution.
For all of the work the farmer does, he or she may only be paid 5 to 6 cents per pound of meat, and he has virtually no say at all in how they raise, feed or care for the chickens. Jonathan Buttram, president of the Alabama Contract Poultry Growers Association, told The Atlantic that in these contract relationships:6
"The company has 99-and-a-half percent control over the grower … I'll list what they tell you: what time to pick up the chickens, what time to run the feed, what time to turn the lights off and on, every move that you make. Then, they say we're not an employee — we are employees, but they won't let us have any kind of benefits or insurance."
In 2001, former chicken farmer Alton Terry contracted with Tyson Foods to raise chickens, after taking out a $500,000 loan to build houses for the chickens. After a couple of years, Tyson told Terry to purchase more equipment, which he refused.
Terry believes the company gave him sick chicks the year after that, then canceled his contract. With no other chicken companies in town, Terry couldn't find another customer to buy his chickens, essentially putting him out of business.
The Hidden Cost of Cheap Chicken
The hidden costs of cheap factory farmed chicken can be divided into three primary categories, all of which are hidden from the public, even though we are ultimately the ones paying these hidden costs:7
• Environmental costs — CAFOs are notorious for producing massive amounts of offensive waste that disturbs and pollutes the local ecosystem. Were chicken companies to pay for the prevention or cleanup of this pollution, the price of chicken would be significantly higher.
• Human health costs — Besides the health ramifications suffered by those who happen to live near a CAFO and are exposed to the environmental contamination caused by these factory farms, CAFO chicken is also taking a hidden toll on your health when you eat it, in several different ways:
◦ The nutrition is inherently inferior — A study8,9 by the American Pastured Poultry Producers Association, which compared the nutrient value of pastured chickens with the USDA’s National Nutrient Database for Standard Reference values for CAFO chicken, found pasture-raised chickens contained:
▪ 406.8% more vitamin E (1.86 IUs per 100 grams compared to 0.367 IUs)
▪ About half the fats of CAFO chicken (saturated, monounsaturated and polyunsaturated)
▪ An average omega-3-to-6 ratio of 1-to-5, which is near ideal, compared to the USDA’s value of 1-to-1510
◦ CAFO chickens are contaminated with antibiotics, which can raise your risk for antibiotic-resistant infections — According to a September 2019 global trend report11,12 in the journal Science, antibiotic resistance in bacteria known to transmit from animals to humans has nearly tripled since 2000. In chickens, the proportion of antibiotics with rates of resistance exceeding 50% increased from 0.15 to 0.41 between 2000 and 2018.
◦ They’re also frequently contaminated with other drugs, including some with known toxic effects in humans. I reported on this in “More Bad News for CAFO Poultry”
◦ CAFO chicken is notoriously high-risk for foodborne illness, and bacterial contamination has been specifically linked to the rise in drug-resistant urinary tract infections (UTIs), which I’ll discuss further below
• Ethical costs — Research has shown that chickens are not only quite smart, they experience suffering just as animals higher up in the food chain. As reported by the Cornucopia Institute:13
“Chickens have nervous systems similar to ours, and when we do things to them that are likely to hurt a sensitive creature, they show behavioral and physiological responses that are like ours.
When stressed or bored, chickens show what scientists call “stereotypical behavior,” or repeated futile movements, like caged animals who pace back and forth.”