Perdue announcement complicates GIPSA debate | TSLN.com

Perdue announcement complicates GIPSA debate

Perdue's announcement that it will require its contractors to improve the facilities in which chickens are grown and will help them pay for the improvements through incentive-based contracts has complicated the debate over the Agriculture Department's plans to update the Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards rules.

Perdue, the nation's fourth largest poultry producer, said Monday it would make a number of changes including requiring sunlight for the birds and giving them more wing space.

Humane Society of the United States President Wayne Pacelle said his group had participated in meetings with Perdue, and called the changes "meaningful and precedent-setting reforms."

Mercy for Animals called Perdue's commitment "the most comprehensive animal welfare policy ever adopted by a major chicken producer."

“As USDA works to finalize these fair-practices rules, we will employ a very thoughtful approach in considering how to update them in a way that makes sense given today’s market realities.” Spokesperson for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack

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National Chicken Council fights GIPSA changes

The National Chicken Council, the group that represents the industry, said the proposed changes to the GIPSA rules would make it difficult for companies to work with growers because the revised rule would impose "rigid, one-size-fits-all requirements on chicken growing contracts."

"Indeed, offering some farmers support to make changes to their barns or rewarding those farmers who focus on priorities of importance to consumers could trigger a violation under those rules," the NCC said.

"The result: stifled innovation, higher costs, lower quality, and the best farmers getting out of the chicken business. Which is why the vast majority of U.S. farmers and ranchers don't want Uncle Sam meddling any more in their private business contracts."

USDA: Don't confuse Perdue plan with GIPSA

But a spokesperson for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said that, while USDA "applauds" Perdue for developing the animal welfare plan, "these updates, while laudable, should not be confused or conflated with USDA's GIPSA rules, which have always been meant to address the decades-old issue of unfair practices by packers or poultry integrators against livestock or poultry growers."

"As USDA works to finalize these fair-practices rules, we will employ a very thoughtful approach in considering how to update them in a way that makes sense given today's market realities," the spokesperson said.

"Efforts to block rules designed to ensure that farmers are treated fairly demonstrate a complete lack of concern for honest, hardworking families who raise our poultry," the spokesperson continued.

"It is worth remembering the hardships recently suffered by our farming families in 2008 and 2009 when producers in Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Texas lost millions of dollars and their livelihoods when just one of the major poultry businesses went under.

"That is why our focus is on how to ensure a fair marketplace and a level playing field for farming families — nothing less. Just ask the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Farmers Union and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition — groups that represent our farmers — and you'll hear that attempts to block fair practices rules are just bad for family farmers, bad for the agriculture industry and bad for our rural communities. Everyone deserves a level playing field. Everyone deserves a fair shot."

Groups say GIPSA changes still needed

The Rural Advancement Foundation and the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, which have worked for years to improve the treatment of contract poultry growers, praised Perdue for the new guidelines but said the proposals are not a substitute for GIPSA reforms.

"Perdue's "tournament" contract system forces farmers into ruthless and expensive contract competitions with very little return for the farmers," RAFI said.

"Under this system, Perdue maintains full ownership of the chickens, but contract farmers are responsible for maintaining and upgrading the costly infrastructure that houses the chickens. Farmers have little to no say about when and what upgrades are required and whether or not they'll have to pay for them."

Congressional appropriators have already proposed preventing USDA from finalizing the GIPSA rules. Last week, RAFI, NSAC and the Government Accountability Project (GAP) delivered a petition signed by 62,346 advocates, urging Congress to allow the USDA to finalize the rules.

NSAC said this week, "While we support Perdue's decision to review and improve its animal welfare practices, we believe the best way to ensure quality of life for both livestock and farmers is to support the forthcoming proposed rules to implement the Packers and Stockyards Act. We anticipate these rules will include a requirement that farmers not be coerced into barn upgrades, and also that they have a reasonable chance of recouping the cost of any upgrades they are encouraged to make by the integrator."

"The rules soon to be proposed by the Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) would also ensure a safer, more fair, and more transparent poultry industry by guaranteeing contract farmers' basic rights, like the right to speak out against unsafe, unfair, or unsanitary working conditions," NSAC said.

"If Perdue wants to raise the standards of the contract poultry industry and stand out as a bonafide innovator in the field, they should embrace the GIPSA rules and encourage other integrators to follow their lead. We hope they will do just that, creating a system with fair farmer practices and high animal welfare standards. Until we have a humane contract farming system, we will never truly have a humane food system."

–The Hagstrom Report