Consolidation within the poultry industry an ominous trend

Leanne McConnachie, Special to the Vancouver Sun
Vancouver Sun
Publication Date:
June 25, 2008

The world food shortage is the “buzz” these days in the media. However, we should be equally concerned about the shortage of companies that produce food in the first place.

We’ve all heard about consolidation within the beef industry whereby it is controlled by three companies — JBS, Cargill and Tyson. Similarly, Monsanto controls 88 per cent of the genetically modified seed market. In the poultry industry, however, consolidation presents an even more sinister scenario — the propensity for disease proliferation.

Through a series of mergers and acquisitions over the years, all of the world’s turkey breeding and egg-laying stock, and most of the world’s meat chicken stock, now originate from two major corporations — The EW Group (Germany) and Hendrix Genetics (Netherlands). Control of the world’s poultry industry is rapidly being concentrated in the hands of a few companies.

I couldn’t help but think back to all the fuss that was made about Microsoft’s near monopoly on operating systems. Yet similar control over the world’s food supply doesn’t even get a sideways glance from governments and politicians.

The economic vulnerability of consumers is obvious. In 2006, chicken represented 33.4 per cent of total meat consumption in Canada, equalling beef. In the United States that same year, chicken was the meat and poultry leader with a 36.4-per-cent share of total meat consumption. These corporations thus have the power to dictate the price for a third of North America’s meals. But more ominous is the genetic vulnerability these giants have inflicted upon poultry that holds the birds, and us, hostage to disease.

How? As with any mass production effort, uniformity in product stock improves the bottom line. The genetic uniformity in poultry has left us with a worldwide stock that lacks the adequate biodiversity to ward off a pandemic. We only have to look back to 2004 when, in British Columbia, 19 million chickens, turkeys and other birds were culled because of concerns over an avian flu outbreak. The population density of birds within factory farms, combined with the genetic similarity of the flock, provides an ideal environment for viral strains to quickly mutate and become drug resistant.

Earlier this month, the Canadian Poultry and Egg Processors Council held its 58th annual convention in Vancouver. Its Issues Report suggests the meeting addressed disease, de-populating and disinfecting barns, compensation for losses, and new drugs and vaccines. In fact, a drug company ad in the program booklet stated “Don’t let immunosuppression threaten your flocks,” and told how its drugs could “improve performance on broiler [chickens], especially on Problem Farms.” Problem farms? Now, that caught my attention!

The CFIA and the poultry sector are working on biosecurity and sanitation measures to help control disease outbreaks. But are these Band-Aid solutions? It would seem biodiversity itself is the biosecurity we need.

The poultry industry is aware that if it bred its commercial “creations” with the local free-range flocks we could achieve a level of genetic diversity that would help reduce the spread of disease. However, because these flocks are not as productive as their commercial counterparts — they don’t grow as fast and produce less meat and fewer eggs — major producers are not interested in using them.

Alas, it appears once again we are paying the price for putting our culture’s goals of productivity and profit above what nature had intended. But it’s not just the profit-seekers’ fault. We all can take some blame on this one. Corporate producers are simply responding to the massive consumer demand for meat and animal products.

What can we do? Simply consume less meat, dairy and eggs. By curbing demand, we lessen supply. This will allow more farmers to return to the organic methods of 50 years ago. The entire poultry industry before 1950 was made up of small, organic flocks. It was the discovery of drugs to control disease that allowed larger, confined flocks and intensive production systems to proliferate.

Sure organic methods are more costly, and smaller flocks mean less available meat, but is this really such a bad thing? Research has shown that we would all benefit from incorporating more plants and less meat in our diets. Beyond the obvious human health benefits, having more meat-free meals also benefits the environment and, of course, the animals.I already gave up meat for reasons of animal compassion. But even if animal welfare is not a driver for the average person, concern for one’s own health and welfare should be enough to land a few more vegetables and a few less chicken strips on anyone’s dinner plate.

Leanne McConnachie is with the Vancouver Humane Society.