Editor’s Desk: When FERN reports, media listen

Poultry at Seldom Rest Farms near Myerstown, PA, USDA photo by Lance Cheung.

On Monday evening, staff writer Leah Douglas broke a huge story on FERN’s Ag Insider — our policy news service —that the Department of Justice was investigating price-fixing in the poultry industry, following a series of civil suits against the biggest chicken companies. It could result in criminal indictments.

Ag Insider has a very focused policy audience, but we count mainstream media among our subscribers, who look to FERN for tips. In this case, the response was dramatic. Bloomberg, Reuters, The Wall Street Journal,and The New York Times all matched the story on Tuesday. CNN cited FERN in its report. Poultry company share prices tanked.

The story raised the profile of an issue — market concentration and pricing power — that has been at the heart of the poultry industry for years. As Leah writes: “The poultry industry is extremely consolidated, with just two companies, Tyson and Pilgrim’s Pride, controlling 40 percent of the market. The top 10 poultry companies control nearly 80 percent of the market.”

Although news coverage has focused on the way these companies allegedly collude to prop up the price of chicken, Leah points out:

“That economic concentration has given the companies extraordinary power over chicken pricing and also over poultry growers, who virtually all operate under contracts with strict terms about bird feed, housing, and care. Many farmers raising the nation’s 8.5 billion broiler chickens can barely stay afloat financially.”

When we added Leah as a staffer, we stretched our budget. But we believed the investment would pay off — and it has. But we can’t do this work without your support. Help us reach our $10,000 June goal and continue to bring important issues in food and agriculture to light by supporting us now. And read Leah’s full report on FERN’s Ag Insider here