A still from Mercy for Animals' undercover footage at Lincoln Premium Poultry in Fremont, Nebraska.

Costco does a lot to keep the price of its $4.99 rotisserie chickens low.

In 2018 they sold 91 million of the brown-skinned birds, making it one of the nationwide wholesale grocers most popular items. To keep up with ever-increasing demand, they built a $450 million chicken processing plant in Fremont, Nebraska capable of churning out 2 million birds per week at peak capacity when it started operation in 2019.

But a new investigation from an animal rights organization finds that Costco, routinely rated as one of the best, most ethical employers in the country, is cutting corners to keep their chicken cheap.

Undercover findings from Mercy for Animals alleges that Costco is lying about the conditions in its largest chicken processing plant. While the company claims to care for its animals’ welfare, the undercover investigation alleges:

  • Birds are bred to larger and larger weights
  • Hundreds of thousands of birds are crammed into sheds that don’t get cleaned for weeks
  • Some chicks are born unable to walk or deformed
  • Many birds suffer from illnesses and injuries like ammonia burns

The Hidden Price of Costco Chicken from Mercy For Animals on Vimeo.

In response to the allegations, John Sullivan, a lawyer for Costco, told the New York Times much of Mercy for Animals’ video depicts “normal and uneventful activity” and that “no system is foolproof when you are raising 18 million broilers at any given time.” Sullivan also said that the company is working to adjust the genetics of Costco birds to develop a “more proportionate” build, but that this takes time.

Mercy for Animals has called on Costco to adopt the “Better Chicken Commitment” to increase standards for their animal’s welfare. The commitment has been adopted by companies like Popeyes, Burger King, Whole Foods and more.

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The investigation is the latest red mark on Nebraska’s meatpacking industry which has faced criticism throughout the pandemic. Advocates say that beef, pork and poultry processing plants have sacrificed worker safety to keep production steady, causing rampant COVID-19 infections and injuries. Meanwhile nation and local accountability mechanisms were either neglected or underutilized. The Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration fined meatpackers nationwide less than $100,000 for COVID-19 violations. No Nebraska facilities were fined. 

The state’s Meatpacking Workers Rights Coordinator spent as little as 2% of her time one month on keeping workers safe. Overall the Nebraska Department of Labor worker spent about 14% of her work week on her job, instead she was pulled toward helping manage a tsunami of claims for unemployment benefits.

Advocates say while protections have been implemented, it has not been uniform statewide. A new bill from State Senator Tony Vargas would do that as well as introduce new accountability measures for one Nebraska’s largest industries.

Vargas brought similar legislation forward in 2020 but it failed. Some are hopeful things will be different this time. Others remain cautious.

“I do not believe all the senators that are on the other side have the courage to step up and do the right thing,” said Eric Reeder, president of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 293, which represents food workers in Nebraska. “I don’t have a lot of faith in them.”

contact the writer at news@thereader.com


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