From Bush Legs to Bad Business Practices - It's Been a Busy Week for Poultry

From Bush Legs to Bad Business Practices - It's Been a Busy Week for Poultry
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It's been quite a week for US poultry. On Tuesday the USDA issued proposed rules to clarify the meaning of "unfair business practices" under the almost 90-year-old federal Packers and Stockyards (P&S) Act.

According to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the purpose of the proposed rules is to ensure a level playing field by addressing "a lack of fairness and commonsense treatment for livestock and poultry producers," which, he said, "have gone unaddressed for far too long."

The National Chicken Council - the DC-based lobbying arm of the poultry industry, which, according to the council's website, represents "95 percent of the chicken sold in the United States" - took issue with Vilsack's characterization, issuing a press release five days before the proposed rules were even published, threatening "years of litigation" and characterizing the rules as "one sided and unrealistic."

This all started back in 2008, during reauthorization of the Farm Bill, when Congress finally figured out that the Packers and Stockyards Act of 1921 was written so broadly that it made enforcement all but impossible. To remedy the situation, Congress directed the Secretary of Agriculture to establish criteria for determining whether the P&S Act has been violated. The USDA's proposed new rules were written in response to that directive, and would apply to livestock as well as poultry.

For contract poultry growers, whose problems were the subject of a joint USDA-Department of Justice hearing in May, the rules would be a first step in remedying a system that has increasingly left them mired in insurmountable debt, with zero job security and no legal recourse.

According to the USDA, the proposed rules would specifically define unfair, deceptive and discriminatory business practices, including those that are retaliatory and designed to intimidate growers from speaking out about the conditions under which they work. If properly drafted in the final version and then zealously enforced, they would also:

•Make it easier for growers to demonstrate that they were harmed by unfair business practices.

•Protect poultry growers, who do not own the birds they raise, from being required by the poultry companies to build expensive growing facilities with no guarantee that they will be able to recoup their costs.

•Require poultry companies to establish a base pay for all contract growers raising the same type of poultry.

•Require poultry companies to give growers written notice of plans to suspend the delivery of chicks for growing at least 90 days before doing so.

•Establish a fair system for using arbitration to remedy disputes between poultry companies and growers but also ensure that growers are made aware, in writing, of their right to decline arbitration, leaving them free to pursue other remedies, such as filing a lawsuit.

The public comment period for the proposed rules is open through August 23, 2010. Comments can be sent by mail or email to the addresses found on the bottom of this USDA press release.

Meanwhile, in other poultry-related news, on Monday, June 21, 25 US Senators ranging across the ideological spectrum from Al Franken to Orrin Hatch, united to urge President Obama to use his meeting with President Medvedev today to negotiate an end to Russia's ban on imports of US chicken.

Chicken has been a hot button issue between the United States and Russia since at least the early 1990s, when American chicken sent to feed impoverished Russians came to be known, derisively, as "Bush legs." The bad feelings reached a new broiling point in January, when Russia instituted a complete ban on US chicken - reducing the value of US exports some $800 million a year - based on Russian objections to US poultry processors' practice of rinsing chicken in chlorine.

The entreaty of the 25 senators to the President came on the heels of an announcement last week that the USDA will buy up to $14 million worth of chicken from US producers to help relieve the current market glut caused by the Russian ban. The plan, hatched during discussions between the USDA and the National Chicken Council, is to use the government-purchased poultry to supply food banks, school lunch programs and other food assistance programs. One can only hope this may lead to a domestic "Obama legs" rebellion when Americans realize they are being fed chlorinated factory farmed chicken rejected by the Russians.

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