A grand jury in Denver, Colorado, recently indicted four chicken industry executives for price fixing. The current and former executives are the first to be charged in an ongoing Department of Justice criminal investigation. The maximum penalty for the offense is 10 years in prison and a $1 million fine, but the fine could be higher, depending on the amount of money the defendants gained or the victims lost.
The executives indicted are Pilgrim’s Pride CEO Jayson Penn, former Pilgrim’s Pride vice president Roger Austin, Claxton Poultry Farms president Mikell Fries, and Claxton vice president and former Pilgrim’s Pride employee Scott Brady. Pilgrim’s Pride and Claxton supply chicken meat to huge chains like Costco, KFC, and Chick-fil-A.
The indictment charges these executives with conspiring to fix prices for chickens by sharing nonpublic information with one another when negotiating with fast-food chains and grocery stores and putting forward similar bids. The scheme shows that the chicken industry cares only about making a profit by any means necessary—not their customers. Mercy For Animals president Leah Garcés said in a statement:
The indictment of meat industry executives is yet another example of just how broken our food system really is. Meat industry executives line their pockets while farmers raising their chickens struggle under outrageous debt; workers toiling in their slaughterhouses fall ill and die from COVID-19; and animals are mutilated, confined, and brutally slaughtered.
Most farmers who raise chickens do so under contract with major meat companies, in a relationship some farmers call “indentured servitude.” They take on massive debt, often struggle to pay it off, and have little to no control over their operations. And as the National Farmers Union suggests, price fixing can widen the disparity, as farmers receive a smaller share of company profits. NFU president Rob Larew said, “Ultimately, it means those companies pay farmers even less for their hard work while charging restaurants, grocery stores, and American consumers more for food.”
In recent weeks, the U.S. meat industry has come under fire for allowing their slaughterhouses to become COVID-19 hotspots, in large part because major meat companies have failed to protect their workers, many of whom are minorities. Workers must often stand elbow to elbow and report that they were not given masks and other protective gear. This is on top of being forced to work at a breakneck pace on high-speed slaughter lines—some lines are allowed to kill up to 175 birds per minute—and suffering some of the highest rates of injury and dismemberment of any profession.
While the human cost is alarming, the treatment of chickens in the poultry industry is even worse. Most birds are bred for rapid growth that can cause debilitating health problems and spend their short lives packed in dimly lit sheds, standing on a mixture of bedding, feathers, excrement, and dust. As a recent Mercy For Animals undercover investigation reveals, when they reach the slaughterhouse, they’re dumped from crowded transport crates onto conveyor belts and hastily thrust upside down into shackles.
Despite all this, the powerful meat industry is asking the federal government for a bailout, citing business disruptions related to COVID-19. Garcés stated:
Meat executives are asking the federal government for billions of taxpayer dollars in stimulus funds. Big Meat’s pursuit of profits above all else is harmful to animals, workers, farmers, our environment, and the American people. To create a food system that works for everyone, the federal government—and major meat producers—must invest in plant-based agriculture and support farmers transitioning from raising animals to growing crops.
As the meat industry struggles, plant-based meat products are thriving, as production systems and supply chains of plant-based foods are less vulnerable to worker shortages and more adaptable—not to mention more compassionate. Taxpayer dollars and government bailouts should help farmers improve practices, diversify, and transition to plant-based farming, not prop up an abusive industry. Take action by signing our petition.