Something's rotten in the state of Maryland, and it's time that a central player in one of the state's biggest industries accepts its fair share of responsibility for the problem.
Perdue Farms Inc. is one of the leading poultry integrators operating in the state of Maryland, contracting with hundreds of growers on the Eastern Shore who raise broiler chickens for the company. Perdue controls the production process from start to finish and owns the birds from the hatchery, to the slaughterhouse, to the wholesale distribution and on to the grocery store.
In the industrial production of poultry, farmers are the "growers" of animals who operate under contract to the integrators and are responsible for the transitional bringing young birds to market weight.
Contract growers have little to no control over the manner in which the birds are raised.
On the other hand, the contract grower is left holding the bag in terms of the manure, or any birds that did not survive the crowded and unhygienic conditions, and receives mere pennies per bird as payment from the integrator. In other words, growers are saddled with the substantial economic and administrative burden of managing these flocks - including their wastes - a burden for which they are not compensated.
Every year, the waste from the nearly 300 million chickens raised on the Eastern Shore - more than a million tons of manure and other poultry production wastes containing antibiotic-resistant bacteria, undigested drugs, heavy metals (such as arsenic), nitrogen and phosphorous - pollutes our water.
Environmentalists are taking action. Last month, Assateague Coastkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance filed a lawsuit against a Perdue-contracted chicken operation in Berlin and Perdue Farms Inc., accusing them of illegal discharges of pollution into the Pocomoke River, which empties into the Chesapeake Bay.
According to news reports, Perdue Farms has reacted to the Eastern Shore case by blaming the state regulatory agencies and environmentalists for the problem.
Jim Perdue, the company's chairman, said no lawsuit would have been filed if the Maryland Department of the Environment had acted more quickly to grant required discharge permits.
The applicable MDE regulations went into effect January 2009, but permits were delayed due to a legal challenge by Assateague Coastkeeper and Waterkeeper Alliance.
But Mr. Perdue's blame game obscures his company's overwhelming and rightful responsibility for the wastes and doesn't address the root of the problem with industrial poultry production: dealing with the manure of hundreds of millions of animals in highly concentrated areas running off into our groundwater and waterways.
Further, Alan and Kristen Hudson, owners of the 80,000-head chicken farm implicated in the lawsuit, have noted that Perdue will not be providing legal or financial assistance in defending against the suit.
The lack of willingness to acknowledge their role and responsibility for environmental damages stemming from their company's production practices is longstanding and does not reflect its self-proclaimed commitment to "environmental stewardship."
Now, Perdue has a real opportunity to live up to these claims by redefining the terms of its contracts to ensure a more equitable, shared burden for dealing with chicken wastes and to enable farmers to continue their livelihoods for generations to come.
As demonstrated by the situation at hand, the burden of managing poultry waste on the Eastern Shore is currently the legal responsibility of the contract growers. As a result, the pollution it causes is also legally considered to be solely the responsibility of the grower. The integrators have long enjoyed the benefits of unfair contractual relationships with growers that effectively exempt them from responsibility for waste management.
The time has come for a more equitable distribution of responsibility, and that means placing the bulk of responsibility for proper waste management on the integrators. The integrators' fair share of responsibility should reflect their proportional share of the profits.
Wenonah Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Watch, a Washington- based national consumer organization. Dr. Robert S. Lawrence is professor of environmental health sciences, health policy and management and international health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and director of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Their e-mail addresses are whauter @fwwatch.org and firstname.lastname@example.org.