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The Wicked Truths Behind Costco’s $4.99 Rotisserie Chicken

September 8, 2021
Time to read: 3 minutes

Unfortunately, this success has come at a steep cost to workers within the poultry industry and, of course, to the chickens themselves.

Costco’s rotisserie chicken has become a kitchen staple for millions of families around the United States. Priced at $4.99 since its debut in May 2009, Costco’s chickens are affordable and versatile. The rotisserie chicken has garnered a cult-like following due to its ability to quickly create a variety of inexpensive lunches and dinners. The chicken’s following is so loyal that Costco created a Facebook page dedicated solely to it that has amassed over 18,000 followers.

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Costco’s rotisserie chickens are quintessential to their business strategy. These chickens are sold at a loss and placed at the back of the store in hopes customers will add more profitable items to their carts as they make their way to the rotisserie chicken. Costco has seen great success in this initiative and, in 2019, sold over 90 million of these chickens nationwide.

Unfortunately, this success has come at a steep cost to workers within the poultry industry and, of course, to the chickens themselves. Because of the heightened demand for these chickens and little room for error due to their low costs, poultry farm managers and supervisors are under immense pressure to produce chickens as efficiently as possible. 

This pressure is then passed down to the workers. Workers are subjected to harassment and humiliated by their supervisors. They are routinely denied breaks, even to use the restroom, and are strictly timed during any breaks they are granted. This is especially demanding for women who may be pregnant or menstruating. Because of the denial of bathroom breaks, it is not uncommon for poultry workers to wear diapers while standing in the processing line. In anticipation of these working conditions, some workers opt to restrict their food and water intake, raising the potential for health implications. 

In recent years, inflation and rising production costs have made it nearly impossible to maintain the $4.99 price point for these birds. As a result of this, in 2014 Costco devised a plan to open its own chicken processing facility in Fremont, Nebraska, to cut production costs by up to 35 cents per chicken. This move, notably the first of its kind, would allow Costco to control all aspects of the supply chain up until each chicken hits the market. 

The opening of this facility was met with fierce opposition from residents of Fremont that had concerns regarding potential pollution to their homes as well as future reductions in home values as a result of the plant. Opponents of the construction of the farm filed an appeal that sought to overturn the approval of the farm. This appeal was eventually rejected by the Nebraska Supreme Court.

Despite overwhelming backlash from residents of Fremont, Costco’s poultry facility opened in September of 2019. Today, Costco's Nebraska facility processes two million birds every week.

The Nebraska Costco facility was branded as a project that would help Costco to better ensure that their poultry production process was responsible and ethical, while keeping their poultry products affordable. As stated in Costco’s United State Animal Welfare Report, “Costco Wholesale is committed to the welfare, and proper handling, of all animals that are used in the production of products sold at Costco. This is a long-standing commitment.” 

Unfortunately, this was not the case.

In an undercover investigation by animal protection organization Mercy for Animals, investigators found that the conditions in the Nebraska facility were no better than those of other poultry processing plants. On their website titled “Costco Exposed,” Mercy for Animals details their findings: “Crowded, filthy barns. Chickens struggling to walk under their own unnatural weight. Bodies burned bare from ammonia-laden litter. Dead days-old chicks. Piles of rotting birds. This is Costco Chicken.”

The Nebraska project could have been a unique opportunity for Costco to lead America in an effort to more sustainably and ethically process meat for its customers. This was a chance for Costco to make huge strides in improving the living conditions of their chickens and creating safer environments for their workers. Instead, Costco’s facility has proven to be indistinguishable from the typical American factory farm.

Jayden Hanan is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley and FFAC Intern.

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