USDA Puts Brakes on Farmer Fair Practices Rule

We all know that industrial chicken farming is a nightmare of epic proportions, but there’s another part of the story that doesn’t get as much press: the terrible business conditions for poultry farmers.

That’s something President Barack Obama identified as a campaign priority in 2008. In 2010, his administration made good on the pledge to make some changes when the United States Department of Agriculture started developing the Farmer Fair Practices Rule. The policy affects not just chicken, but also pigs and other animals raised for food.

Late last year, the USDA moved forward with formalizing the rule, but now, the Trump administration wants the whole thing put on hold — supposedly to “review the effects” of a rule that’s been in the works for seven years.

Farmers fear this may be a prelude to ditching the Farmer Fair Practices Rule altogether, and you should be concerned too — even if you don’t eat meat.

97 percent of the chicken raised for food in the United States comes from so-called contract farmers, who don’t even own the birds they raise. Instead, corporations provide the chicks on contract, but the terms aren’t great for farmers.

Corporations can afford to set strict requirements and offer minimal pay because of the reduced competition in the industry. Farmers can either take it, or not farm at all — and many go into debt building facilities and hiring staff.

Historically, farmers have had few options for rectifying this situation. In order to file suit, they have to be able to meet a standard showing that these practices harm the industry as a whole. And that’s hard to do.

Additionally, if farmers complain, they may be penalized. An “undue preference” system can arise, with some producers getting better pay, and higher-quality birds, than others.

This isn’t fair for farmers, and it’s also not fair for birds. Amidst the pressure for quantity over quality — and for low-cost meat at any price — birds suffer. Even so-called “humane certified” operations are often anything but, with birds crammed into small spaces and exploited to maximize profits. For those who aren’t fans of eating animals, that’s cause for real concern.

For meat eaters, though, it’s nothing to ignore.

In addition to ethical concerns about how chickens live, animals raised in cramped conditions with minimal care are more likely to get sick. While some sick birds may be removed from the supply chain, others will inevitably slip through.

Meanwhile, agricultural pollution from industrial chicken farming is a serious concern. That puts the safety of your food at risk, and highlights the fact that humane, ethical farming practices aren’t just better for animals and the Earth, but for consumers, too.

The USDA rule is pretty straightforward, making it easier for farmers to seek legal redress and creating greater transparency in the contract farming industry. It was developed with substantial input from stakeholders, and while the poultry industry in particular isn’t a fan — and succeeded in diluting some components — it’s a commonsense rule that could radically improve outcomes for farmers in rural America.

Apparently the Trump administration disagrees, which is where you come in.

By putting the brakes on the rule, the USDA has also extended the comment period. The agency says that it wants to hear from the public about four possible actions: let the rule move forward, withdraw it, delay it “indefinitely” or push the effective date back. The public has a 60-day window to make its opinion known to the USDA through the Federal Register.

It’s important to note that this is taking place before the Senate has even confirmed President Trump’s nominee for agriculture secretary, with the USDA currently headed by an interim administrator. Sonny Perdue, the president’s first choice, isn’t related to the chicken farming empire, but he’s a big friend of commercial agriculture, including industrial operations like those targeted with this rule.