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Americans are now eating more chicken than beef or pork. And meeting that demand is an industry that some have dubbed big chicken. Texas is a major player in the industry, and so now Texas must manage a problem that in other circumstances we might describe as fallout or blowback. Dave Fehling of member station KUHF in Houston explains what that problem is.
DAVE FEHLING, BYLINE: Dan Franks has a beautiful view from his home 40 miles east of Waco: a pond, a pasture, wildflowers in full bloom, but just barely visible off in the distance...
DAN FRANKS: We're about a half mile from the chicken houses.
FEHLING: Is what Franks calls an agri factory, as in agriculture.
FRANKS: There are more than a million chickens over there.
FEHLING: In this part of Texas, millions of chickens are living in row after row of long, low buildings. Already a major presence for years in east Texas, big, national chicken processors have opened plants in places like Waco and Bryan, spawning hundreds of chicken farms in nearby counties.
JEAN HAGERBAUMER: It happened very quickly.
FEHLING: Thirty miles north of Bryan-College Station is where Jean Hagerbaumer lives on 12 acres.
HAGERBAUMER: I was in town, you know, and everybody was asking what stinks. And, ah, it's the chicken houses.
FEHLING: But more than smells are escaping. For sheer volume of pollutants released into Texas waterways, poultry producers are at the top of the list in the state, according to a watchdog group, Environment Texas. Luke Metzger is the group's director.
LUKE METZGER: Well, I think when people think of farms they think of the old mom and pop family farms, but, you know, these have turned into giant corporate, you know, mechanized facilities that generate huge amounts of waste.
FEHLING: From the chicken coups, tons of manure is trucked away and spread on farmers' fields as fertilizer. At processing plants, millions of gallons of water are used daily in the slaughtering process and released into streams. One of the nation's biggest chicken producers is Sanderson Farms. It opened a processing plant in Bryan in 1995 and another in Waco in 2007, each handling over a million chickens a week. Mike Cockrell is Sanderson Farms Chief Financial Officer.
MIKE COCKRELL: We do our dead level best to operate not only in an environmentally-friendly manner but certainly consistent with all the permits and the rules and the regulations that we've agreed to follow when we open a plant or when we open a wastewater treatment facility, in this case.
FEHLING: There is a debate, though, about how and what the government is regulating. The outflow from processing plants and the run-off from chicken farms are full of nutrients. That might not sound bad, but the concern is that an overload of nutrients in streams and rivers can throw nature out of balance, causing algae to increase, killing fish and other species, even contributing to the so-called dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
Texas environmental regulators don't do nearly enough to reduce such agricultural pollution, according to environmentalists. They are urging the state to toughen pollution rules. Texas is currently revising those rules to meet federal standards imposed by the Clean Water Act. Sanderson Farms, for one, says it will do what it has to to comply if standards are toughened, but says the company's Mike Cockrell...
COCKRELL: Now, I would hope that if they do change those standards it would be science-based and not emotion-based.
FEHLING: Because the industry maintains that despite what some of its neighbors believe, chicken farming is still a wholesome business that's good for the state, even when done on such a massive scale.
For NPR News, I'm Dave Fehling.
INSKEEP: This is one of many stories coming to us from StateImpact. That's a collaboration between NPR and its local stations examining how state issues affect people's lives.
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INSKEEP: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.