In Meat Wagon, we round up the latest outrages from the meat and livestock industries.


I write this on the second day of December — one among a string of months that end in “r.” That means, for those of us who live near the sea, it’s time to consider the oyster, that glorious bivalve mollusc.

In her great essay “Consider the Oyster: Love and Death Among the Molluscs,” MFK Fisher notes the “strange cold succulence” of the raw oysters she sampled in her youth in France.

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But oysters provide more than just sensual pleasure; they’re also packed with nutrients and rank among the most responsible seafood choices a consumer can make. According to Monterey Bay Aquarium, oyster farms can “actually benefit the surrounding coastal waters” because they filter out toxins and don’t feed on wild-caught fish.

But even as oysters filter toxins, they can also be overwhelmed by them. Tragically, that is precisely what’s happening in Maryland’s Chesapeake Bay, home to some of the globe’s most celebrated oysters. A major culprit, the New York Times reports, is Maryland’s massive poultry industry, which churns out some 650 million pounds of manure each year, too much of which leaks into the bay and feeds vast algae blooms that suck oxygen out of the water.

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In essence, a delicious, sustainable, and nutrient-dense protein source is being snuffed out so that a flavorless, filthy, and nutritionally suspect one can thrive.

As the Times puts it:

As the phosphorous and nitrogen levels in the bay have grown, so have the algae that deplete oxygen needed by other aquatic life.

In the past two decades, working oystermen on the bay have dropped to less than 500, from 6,000. The crab population has fallen by 70 percent.

Water quality in the Chesapeake Bay continues to decline, despite “more than a decade of spending over $100 million a year in state money on restoration efforts,” the Times reports.

Industry apologists claim that meat production gets too much blame for the situation. Not so, says the EPA. Here is the Times:

Storm runoff from urban areas, lawn fertilizers and pollution from cars and sewage treatment plants also play major roles in polluting the bay. But Environmental Protection Agency officials say that agriculture is the largest single source of pollutants and sediment in the Chesapeake Bay, accounting for over 40 percent of the nitrogen and phosphorous and over 70 percent of the sediment.

What’s more, sewage treatment plants have already been required to reduce runoff into the bay; and large dairy and hog farms are regulated by a licensing process. But the poultry industry cranks out its waste largely untroubled by government oversight. “[I]n the past two decades, the poultry industry has carved a special role for itself in terms of the oversight it receives,” the Times reports; “and it has twice defeated state efforts to impose permits.”

State officials are considering new rules that would require the largest poultry farms to apply for permits to handle manure and limit application of manure near streams and ditches. The proposal contains one glaring flaw, from what I can tell. From The Times:

The liability for the manure would fall to the growers who raise the chickens, rather than the larger companies that own the birds, provide the feed and drop off a new batch of chicks every eight weeks.

I actually sympathize with the farmers on this one. They operate under contract with corporate giants like Tyson, Perdue, and Pilgrim’s Pride. As those giants get ever bigger, they gain leverage to drive down the price farmers receive for their goods, forcing farmers to scale up to eke out any profits at all. Increased regulatory pressure could drives hundreds of farms out of business.

I hope Maryland does impose draconian rules on poultry pollution — including stiff fines. But it should focus its attention on the entities that own the birds — the large poultry packers. And it should invest the proceeds into a fund to help farms transition out of the poultry business and into more sustainable models — just as Kentucky has helped farms switch from tobacco into diversified local food production.

Such a move could help preserve what’s left of Maryland’s farmland, while also leading to a revival of the state’s production of magnificent oysters.

Pilgrim’s Pride waddles into bankruptcy court

Speaking of gigantic poultry companies, Pilgrim’s Pride is the biggest of all. It slaughters and packs a jaw-dropping one in four chickens consumed in this country.

More stunning still, the company filed for Chapter 11 protection Monday, squeezed by high corn prices, low chicken prices, and a heavy debt load.

The company swears it’s not going belly up, but rather merely seeking better terms from its creditors. Stock market investors seem less than convinced; the company’s shares have lost nearly all of their value over the past year, and sank 45 percent Monday.

What can this development mean for the industry? It’s too early to say; but as I’ve written before, a Pilgrim’s Pride collapse will almost certainly mean yet more consolidation in the poultry industry. Indeed, Wall Street analysts have hinted that the company’s largest rival, Tyson, intentionally drove down chicken prices to push Pilgrim’s Pride out of business.