Background image of Ecotrust food and farms manager Stacey Sobell stands behind a lectern speaking in the Billy Frank Jr Conference Center


Pecking at the barriers for “chicken of the middle” producers

On April 8, farmers, butchers, public health professionals, industry experts, and members of the media gathered at Ecotrust to talk about sustainable chicken production, and why it’s so difficult to achieve.

Stacey Sobell, Ecotrust’s Food & Farms Director, kicked off the second of three Food Forums hosted this spring by Ecotrust with a sobering statistic: Each year, more than 23,000 Americans die as a direct result of routine infections — infections that we should be able to cure, but for which the antibiotics we rely on no longer work.

Currently, there is a bill before the Oregon legislature that would limit the use of antibiotics in livestock production only to animals that are sick. House Bill 2598 is a response to the fact that antibiotics are routinely used in animal production not just to treat sick animals, but also to promote growth and to prevent disease due to unsanitary conditions and crowding. This practice has led to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria known as “superbugs” and fears about the future of antibiotic resistance.

Despite the fact that demand for chicken has skyrocketed since the 1980s, access to and purchasing of locally raised poultry for Oregon schools remains paltry. Sobell referenced the recent USDA farm to school census, which found that “Oregon school districts invested nearly 10 million of their food dollars in local communities, and that beef was one of the top five locally produced foods purchased. But chicken was not on that list, despite being the number one protein served by schools across the country.”

Sobell went on to discuss the results of part of a yearlong study done by Ecotrust into the regional food system infrastructure. According to the study, there are no midsize chicken producers in Oregon. Instead, individual consumers are left with only two choices: more expensive, sustainably and humanely raised chicken from small-scale producers or cheaper, large-scale, factory-farmed chicken.

What followed Sobell’s introduction was a robust discussion about what many attendees and panelists referred to as “chicken of the middle.”

antibiotic resistance expert Gail Hansen smiles into the camera

Antibiotics in chicken production

Gail R. Hansen is a public health veterinarian with Pew Charitable Trusts based in Washington, D.C. She’s been at Pew since 2010 working on antibiotic resistance issues. Hansen supports the responsible use of antibiotics in chicken production and was hesitant about the phrase “antibiotic-free,” saying, “Sometimes bad things happen to good chickens.”

She estimated that animals in a healthy system only require antibiotics between two to five percent of the time. “If you need antibiotics to make animals grow, you know you’ve got a broken system,” she said. Hansen spoke later about the major difference that simply cleaning a facility can have on the health of chickens. Referencing the study Meat on Drugs published by Consumer Reports in 2012, she noted farms that don’t use antibiotics for growth promotion can do even better than those that do.

Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services Director speaks to attendees at an event

Chicken in school lunchrooms

Portland Public Schools has been one of Ecotrust’s closest partners in getting local foods into the cafeteria and onto the plates of kids. Gitta Grether-Sweeney has been leading the PPS child nutrition programs for 28 years and has been the Director of Nutrition Services at Portland Public Schools since 2010. When introducing herself, she said, “I run the largest restaurant in town.” Under her guidance, Portland Public Schools increased its local procurement by six percent in 2014. “But,” she says, “protein is the hardest nut to crack.”

Chicken is the number one meat served in schools because, it’s cost effective, kids like it, and there are fewer cultural barriers around chicken as compared to beef or pork. But in order to maintain that cost efficacy, chicken must fit into the tiny per-meal budget allocated for public schools.

According to Grether-Sweeney, Portland Public Schools Nutrition Services is allocated $3.04 to serve a student one meal. After overhead costs are accounted for, just $1.38 is left for food. Operating within these constraints is difficult, but Grether-Sweeney has already formed a partnership that works.

Portland Public Schools buys drumsticks from a chicken producer in Nebraska. Drumsticks are less valuable than chicken breasts, and therefore within Portland Public Schools’ budget. The question remains, though, why aren’t partnerships like this forming locally? Why must Grether-Sweeney go out of region to buy chicken? According to Aaron Silverman, the answer lies in processing.

Aaron Silverman sits on a panel in a black and white long-sleeved t-shirt with a brick wall behind him

The missing piece

Aaron Silverman, owner of Tails & Trotters, which specializes in prosciutto cured from heritage pigs finished on hazelnuts, was originally a “chicken guy”. Before going into pork in 2009, Silverman was fifteen years into a career in midsize pastured poultry production. “I am the chicken of the middle,” he said.

In Noti, OR in 1993, Silverman started raising chicken on land he had purchased in order to revive the soil. His operation processed about 100 chickens every other week; customers would come to the farm to pick up their orders the day of processing.

By 2000, demand for his chicken had grown significantly, and he teamed up with three other families to found Greener Pastures. Greener Pastures successfully petitioned the Department of Agriculture to recognize the 20,000 bird exemption, which exempts producers that process 20,000 birds or less annually from federal inspection. Eventually, as demand continued to grow, the 20,000 bird ceiling was reached, and Greener Pastures was unable to raise the capital to build a central processing facility that would keep them in line with state regulations.

Silverman reasoned that producing 20,000 birds per year breaks down to processing and selling around 200 birds per week. (For comparison, Foster Farms processes around 150,000 birds per day.) Ultimately, this is not enough revenue to sustain that scale of production. A large, central processing facility would allow both smaller and midsize producers the facilities to more efficiently and cost effectively process their meat: “Until this happens, we will be left with fewer choices — large or teeny tiny.”

three men stand inside the Ecotrust building chatting following a panel discussion on meat production in the Northwest

Connecting with consumers

William Betts, Vice President of Purchasing at Whole Foods Markets, oversees all purchasing for the Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia stores. Whole Foods is one of the only grocers to offer only 100 percent antibiotic-free meat. Betts emphasized that Whole Foods, like consumers, is ready for a midsize sustainable chicken operation: “Whole Foods would love to have a partner. We can tell stories. We can get you certified. We would love to have partners to get us there.”

The chicken supply chain

At one point in the evening, Grether-Sweeney responded to a question, saying, “Demand will drive change.” Ecotrust’s Food & Farms team has begun the process of forming exciting partnerships in attempt to fill in the gaps in the infrastructure of the regional food system. In addition to fostering conversation by hosting events like Food Forums, Ecotrust has been working with OHSU and Portland Public schools to assess how much demand there is for chicken raised without antibiotics among larger institutions.

Further investigating infrastructural gaps in the regional food system is the topic of the third and final Food Forum: Opening the Black Box of the Food System. Join us on May 14 to learn more about gaps in the aggregation, processing, and distribution of food.