Processing Magazine

Chicken farmers feel threatened by Oklahoma suit

July 14, 2009
The livelihood of the poultry industry could be threatened by Oklahoma Attorney General Drew Edmondson''s lawsuit accusing a dozen Arkansas processors of polluting the Illinois River watershed with bird waste, according to the Associated Press. A federal trial is set for September 21, and depending on the outcome, similar environmental lawsuits could be filed nationwide against the multi-billion-dollar poultry industry. It is not clear what effect the litigation will have on the processors'' operations, if any. But many farmers and residents in the dozens of small towns in Oklahoma dependant on the industry worry the companies could pull out of the state and threaten their way of life. The lush, million-acre river valley that spans parts of Oklahoma and Arkansas is dotted with 1,800 poultry houses. More than 55,000 people in Oklahoma and Arkansas work in the poultry industry in one of the largest areas in the U.S. for producing broilers, or birds raised for meat. Handling chicken waste has long been part of doing business in this watershed. For decades, farmers took clumps of bird droppings, bedding and feathers from the houses and spread them on their land as an inexpensive fertilizer for other crops. The two states sanctioned this by issuing the farmers permits, and the industry says no individual companies or farms have been accused of violating environmental regulations. The Attorney General says the sheer volume of the waste spread on the land -- estimated at 345,000 tons per year -- has wreaked environmental havoc. Runoff carries bacteria into lakes and streams, where it threatens the health of tens of thousands of people who boat and camp in the valley every year. He says the industry took the least expensive way out when it could have burned the litter as energy, processed it into pellets or even composted it until the pathogens died.