Fowl Matters

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A Guide to Health, Environmental Justice and Civic Action around Broiler Chicken

Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) raise and feed a range of animals in confined situations. Cows, hogs, chickens, turkey and other animals do not graze on pastures. Their manure is heavily concentrated in lagoons or sprayed on crop fields.  The USDA defines broiler CAFOs as annually raising and slaughtering 500,000 or more chickens for meat consumption.

How did Big Ag come about? Modern-day CAFOs were created through a system of subsidies, deregulation, and vertical integration. In 2015, the U.S. produced 9 billion broilers. Today, 97 percent of the chicken we eat is produced by 30,000 farmers under contract with Tyson, Pilgrim’s Pride, Perdue and Sanderson Farms.

Broiler CAFOs are concentrated in what is known as the southeast poultry corridor. Poultry farming is now the number one agricultural operation in North Carolina and in 2014 had an economic impact of $12.8 billion. The green dots below show the spatial distribution of poultry operations in NC. The ongoing expansion of broiler CAFOs translates to more waste, pollution, and adverse health effects for neighbors and consumers. This is partly because environmental regulation of poultry has been almost non-existent over the past several decades.

Environmental Working Group/Waterkeeper Alliance, 2016

The Clean Water Act (CWA), passed in 1972, gives the Environmental ProtectionAgency (EPA) the “authority to regulate any entity discharging pollution into national waterways, including CAFOs.” The CWA sets a simple goal of zero discharge into public water and sets limits on industrial and sewage sites. However, it left CAFOs unregulated for years. A recent EPA study shows that nationally, only 36 percent of the largest industrialized livestock facilities and 41 percent of all CAFOs have permits as required by the CWA. Many of the states with the highest densities also have the lowest level of CWA compliance.

Though the Clean Air Act (CAA) has been in effect for 45 years, the EPA has not actively used it to regulate ammonia or any other air pollution from factory farms. Advocates for sustainable broiler production face an additional hurdle because wet chicken litter is regulated by the EPA, but dry litter by the USDA. Attempts to require oversight by both agencies have been repeatedly blocked by the industry, which opposes “safeguards or oversight of factory farm pollutants.” Even when an inspection is required, state-level regulatory bodies are riddled with conflicts of interest and often lack the staff capacity to properly examine all permitted facilities.

Impacts of Broiler CAFOs & Ongoing Actions

Waste and fertilizer runoff from poultry operations enter rivers, lakes, and streams. Nitrogen and phosphorus pollution causes algal blooms, kills fish, and pollutes drinking water. Consuming this water can cause birth defects, bladder diseases, and thyroid problems.

Support the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network and Waterkeeper Alliance’s campaigns to clean up poultry operations.


Communities living near broiler CAFOs are exposed to ammonia, particulate matter, and heavy metals when large fans aerate confined waste. Breathing in polluted air can cause respiratory diseases, asthma, and lung cancer.

Learn about the Community Engagement, Environmental Health and Justice Laboratory at the University of Maryland-College Park. Support the Assateague Coastal TrustSalisbury NAACP,  and other members of a coalition on the lower Eastern Shore of Maryland.


Contract growers sign unfair contracts and spend vast sums to convert their farms into factories. They often become saddled with debt. Workers suffer from extreme heat, job insecurity, and exposure to other occupational hazards.

Support efforts by the Rural Advancement Foundation International and Western North Carolina Workers’ Center.

Save Antibiotics

Poultry CAFOs are breeding grounds for antibiotic resistance, which develops when drugs are used for non-therapeutic purposes. When consumers buy contaminated food at grocery stores, pathways of exposure multiply and can decrease the drugs’ effectiveness for all human patients.

Join the Save Antibiotics Campaign through Food & Water Watch. Support research by Rural Empowerment Association for Community Help.

Climate Justice

Poultry litter incinerators release more carbon monoxide, particulate matter, nitrogen oxide, and carbon dioxide than new coal plants. Poultry production and incineration facilities are often disproportionately sited in low-income areas and/or in communities of color.

Support research and action conducted by Food & Water Watch.

Animal Welfare

Throughout their short lives, the vast majority of conventionally raised broiler chickens have no access to the outdoors and less than one square foot to move around. They are engineered to grow so quickly that their bodies cannot support their weight.

Sign up for the ASPCA’s Shop With Your Heart initiative which encourages consumers to buy animal-welfare certified products.

Defend Academic Integrity

To successfully bring about social, environmental, economic, and political change, it is essential to equip coalitions in higher education with research and advocacy skills, and for them to act without fear of repercussions.

End Ag Gag

Ag Gag laws silence insider revelations, including conditions inside CAFOs, environmental harms, food safety breeches, and labor violations. They evolved from Right-to-Farm Amendments and criminalize free speech.

Support the Food Integrity Campaign’s efforts to protect whistleblowers and advance free speech.


Environmental Justice: The North Carolina Environmental Justice Network defines EJ as “The right to a safe, healthy, productive, and sustainable environment for all, where ‘environment’ is considered in its totality to include the ecological (biological), physical (natural and built), social, political, aesthetic, and economic environments. Environmental justice refers to the conditions in which such a right can be freely exercised, whereby individual and group identities, needs, and dignities are preserved, fulfilled, and respected in a way that provides for self- actualization and personal and community empowerment. This term acknowledges environmental “injustice” as the past and present state of affairs and expresses the socio-political objectives needed to address them.“5

Climate Justice: Recognizes that those who are hit first and hardest by climate impacts have contributed least to the problem. A climate justice framework suggests that the solution to climate change lies in addressing social, economic, and political systems that perpetuate discrimination and heat up an already fevered planet.