Founded in 1947, Sanderson Farms is the only Fortune 1000 company headquartered in Mississippi. The company uses 900 independent suppliers to raise chickens for slaughter and sale. Sanderson slaughters over 10.5 million chickens a week, a fact which they promote on their website. In addition to their own brand of products, Sanderson supplies chicken to the food service company Sysco, as well as the fast food restaurant chain Arby’s and the fast casual restaurant chain Chili’s. By some measures, Sanderson is the third largest poultry producer in the US, after Tyson and Pilgrim’s, as per Watt AgNet and Sanderson’s website. However, this list has Perdue and Koch Foods ahead of Sanderson.
The Modern Chicken Industry
Chickens are, by far, the most abused species in the US. Of all the land animals who are factory farmed each year, chickens make up over 90%. Books such as Meat Racket, and Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food describe the horrors of the modern chicken industry. These include bodily mutilations, severe overcrowding, poisonous air quality, and abuse and injuries during catching, crating, and transport. Finally, birds are not protected by the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, thus there is no legal requirement that a chicken be rendered unconscious before her throat is slit. (1)
All these factors and more led Professor of Veterinary Medicine John Webster to note that modern poultry production is, “In both magnitude and severity, the single most severe example of man’s inhumanity to another species.” (2)
One aspect of the suffering caused by the modern chicken industry is the incredibly rapid growth of today’s manipulated chickens. Dr. Harish Sethu has studied the history of the chicken industry to see how today’s birds live and grow. In 1920, by choosing the fastest growing breed and feeding them optimal food, farmers were able to bring a 2.2 pound chicken to market in 112 days. Today, after decades of genetic manipulation and advances in growth-promoting drug additives, birds weigh 6 pounds or more, and are slaughtered at only 47 days. Chickens are growing more than 600 percent faster than the fastest growing birds a few decades ago. Or, as Dr. Sethu notes, a 47 day-old chicken weighing 6 pounds is like a human 10-year-old child weighing 500 pounds. (3)
Sanderson Farms is pushing that limit. As quoted in the New York Times: “Mike Cockrell, the chief financial officer at Sanderson Farms…noted that it’s already possible to produce a conventional bird with a longer life span. Sanderson and other chicken companies produce what are called “big birds,” conventional chickens that weigh roughly nine pounds when slaughtered at about 56 days.” (4)
In their “Chicken Industry Report,” agricultural journal Feedstuffs reported that “broilers now grow so rapidly that the heart and lungs are not developed well enough to support the remainder of the body, resulting in congestive heart failure and tremendous death losses.” (5) In addition to heart and lung failure, chickens’ legs and joints often cannot support the massive weight, and often break. This leads to more death losses, as birds cannot make it to food or water. Indeed, Dr. Sethu calculates that well over 100 million birds die each year before making it to slaughter. To put it another way: more birds suffer and die before making it to slaughter than the number of cows and pigs killed overall. (6)
Recent research shows that chickens are complex, curious, and social creatures. Dr. Lori Marino of Emory University summarizes our current state of knowledge: “Chickens are behaviorally sophisticated, discriminating among individuals, exhibiting Machiavellian-like social interactions, and learning socially in complex ways that are similar to humans.” Professor Christine Nicol at the University of Bristol notes, “The domesticated chicken is something of a phenomenon… Studies over the past 20 years have revealed their finely honed sensory capacities, their ability to think, draw inferences, apply logic and plan ahead.” (7)
As antibiotic resistance and “superbugs” become an ever growing concern around the world, (14) the fact that animal agriculture uses the majority of antibiotics in the US is coming into sharper focus. As of 2014, factory farms use over 70 percent of the “medically important” antibiotics used in the nation. In their feature “How Factory Farms Play Chicken With Antibiotics,” Mother Jones points out that “Microbes that have evolved to withstand antibiotics now sicken 2 million Americans each year and kill 23,000 others – more than homicide.” At least 700,000 people are killed worldwide by antibiotic resistant infections (8).
Much of the industry is taking notice. Tyson has had a back-and-forth campaign to eliminate the use of at least some antibiotics, and as of May 2017, said they would eliminate antibiotic use by the end of the year. (9) On the restaurant side, Chipotle led the way; Chik-fil-A claims all its chicken will be antibiotic-free by 2019. McDonald’s claims the chicken it sells in the US was to have been free of “human” antibiotics by March 2017.
Perdue has been a leader in this area since 2007. As cited in the Mother Jones article, Bruce Stewart-Brown, Purdue’s Vice President for Food Safety, admitted, “We already know that we create resistance with the products we use.” Purdue’s ‘No Antibiotics Ever” line has experienced rapid sales growth, and in October of 2016, they announced they would use antibiotics only on sick birds. (10) This means 95% of their production will be antibiotic-free.
Sanderson Farms has been outspoken against this trend, as noted in this New York Times article, “Poultry Producer Sanderson Farms Stands Its Ground: It’s Proud to Use Antibiotics.” The first photo on the Sanderson Farms website leads to a page that says, “None of the chicken you buy in the grocery store has antibiotics in it. By federal law, all chicken must be clear of antibiotics before they leave the farm.” Antibiotic residue in the chicken flesh is not the issue, of course. The widespread use of antibiotics before slaughter is what is driving resistant superbugs.
Shareholder proposals to alter Sanderson’s antibiotic policy have failed. (11)
In 2013, coliform bacterial contamination of water supplies from slaughterhouses led six Mississippi counties to issue “Boil Water” orders. This led to the temporary closing of the Sanderson Farms plant in Laurel. (12)
In 2015, Sanderson Farms recalled 554,090 pounds of poultry due to metal contamination. Sample coverage: “This chicken company just recalled half a million pounds of meat for this reason,” Fortune.
Oxfam America did an investigation into the treatment of slaughterhouse workers by Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms (which together control nearly 60 percent of the poultry market). The investigation found that poultry workers’ are often denied bathroom breaks. Sometimes, requests are met with threats of punishment or firing. The report, “No Relief,” documents workers urinating and defecating while on the line, wearing diapers to work, and limiting fluid and food intake. “‘I had to wear Pampers’: The cruel reality the people who bring you cheap chicken allegedly endure,” Washington Post.
Hatchery Investigation, 2016
At a Sanderson Farms’ Kinston, NC hatchery, an undercover investigation found significant mistreatment of newly-hatched chicks. Chicks who hadn’t hatched at a “normal” time – “late hatchers” – were abandoned. Some died; the discarded chicks who survived were dropped into a macerator and ground up alive. The footage was recorded in 2015, before North Carolina’s Ag-Gag law went into effect. (13) “Shocking footage shows baby chicks crushed to death in meat factory,” GlobalMeatNews.com
Antitrust Charges against Sanderson Farms
Several lawsuits have been filed against Sanderson Farms and other chicken producers, alleging collusion on various fronts.
In 2016, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Sanderson Farms and others, alleging an eight-year-long antitrust, price-fixing scheme. According to the suit, Tyson, Perdue Farms, Pilgrim’s Pride, Sanderson Farms, Simmons Foods, Koch Meats, JCG Foods, Koch Meats, Wayne Farms, Mountaire Farms, Peco Foods, Foster Farms, House of Raeford Farms, Fieldale Farms, George’s Farms, and O.K. Foods killed hens and flocks and destroyed eggs to limit production and raise the price of over 90% of chicken sold in the US by almost 50 percent. (14) This increase in price came about even as the price for feed dropped (15). Pivotal Research Group, and equity research and analysis organization, found the case to be “powerfully convincing.” (16) As of June 2017, the Federal Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is also looking into price fixing charges. (17)
In early 2017, a group of chicken farmers filed a lawsuit against Sanderson Farms, as well as Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrim’s, and Koch. The lawsuit claimed the companies (referred to in the suit as a “cartel”) frequently shared data on pay rates for contract farmers, so as to keep compensation lower. Also according to the lawsuit, the cartel agreed not to compete for the services of farmers, so as to isolate themselves “from normal competitive pressures that could potentially erode the effects of their information sharing agreement.” (18)
For more background on the structure of the modern chicken industry in the US, see Jon Oliver’s investigative report on the treatment of chicken contract farmers on his show Last Week Tonight.
For fiscal year 2016, Sanderson had revenue of $2.82 billion, up from $2.8 billion for fiscal year 2015. Net income for 2016 was $186 million, down from $211.8 million in 2015 (19).
 This year in the US, about 9 billion animals will suffer on factory farms and be killed in industrial slaughterhouses. If you could convince everyone to completely give up beef, pork, and dairy, the number would still be about 9 billion.
 According to the FDA: “The percentage of domestic sales and distribution of medically important antimicrobials approved for use in food-producing animals that have an approved indication for production use decreased from 72% to 68% from 2009 through 2012, but then remained unchanged at 72% from 2013 through 2014.” (link)