Intensive livestock industries are no longer welcome everywhere, and that is why these companies are increasingly moving abroad. The same applies to Plukon, a Dutch poultry conglomerate that has now settled in France to produce speed-bred broiler chickens. This is at the expense of the local organic chicken farming sector, and neither the farmers involved nor the local residents are happy about this.
- Facing strict regulations in the Netherlands, Dutch poultry group Plukon bought the French company Duc in 2017, intending to expand further. Following the acquisition of Duc, Plukon embarked on a large-scale reshaping of its local industry, ending organic poultry production, vastly expanding sss abattoir in Chailley, and building 80 new mega-barns.
- However, according to research conducted by Lighthouse Reports, Mediapart and Follow the Money, the non-transparent way the company operates around Chailley, located just below Paris, has led to frustration among farmers and the people. Opposition is not appreciated, and in some towns, protesters have mentioned intimidation.
- This project is a cooperation between Mediapart (Amélie Poinssot), Lighthouse Reports (Ludo Hekman) and Follow the Money (Lukas Kotkamp).
[This article was originally pubblised on FTM.nl on 35 February 2022]
Poultry farmer Mathilde Godard signed a contract in 2012 with Duc, a producer of poultry products and owner of an abattoir in Chailley, just below Paris. She had a 15-year contract to supply the company with organic chickens. Many other local poultry farmers had already joined Duc, and organic poultry farming was booming.
Godard, who comes from a farming family, had just started her business and quickly got approval for her project from the local chamber of agriculture. She took out a loan to build two large poultry barns where the chickens were free to roam, all according to the regulations for keeping organic chickens. She used the organic manure from her chickens for her organic crops.
It worked this way for seven years. But in early 2020, Duc, which was bought three years earlier by the Dutch company Plukon, announced that it would stop producing organic poultry meat. Duc demanded that Godard complete the remaining eight years of her contract by breeding non-organic chickens, known as speed-bred broiler chickens.
Although the new chickens would remain free-range due to the layout of her farm, they would be given conventional mixed feed, unlike organic chicken, and would be slaughtered when they were about 40 days old – whereas her organic chickens had a minimum age of 81 days. Godard’s previous investments seemed to have been in vain.
‘This was not what I had signed up for. Moreover, I cannot fertilise my organic crops with the manure from the chickens that Duc is now demanding. That is why I had to refuse the new delivery of chicks,’ Godard told FTM’s Mediapart colleague.
‘Farmers are subjected to decisions in which they have no say’
Once the second-largest poultry processor in France, Duc almost went bankrupt in 2016 and was bought by the Dutch concern Plukon shortly after. In 2020, Plukon decided to end organic production without consulting the poultry farmers involved. Instead, Plukon decided to use the organic industry it had built up to produce ‘standard’ speed-bred chickens.
Several hectic months followed for Godard, which she spent developing a new project and tapping into a new market. She eventually managed to convert her business to breeding layers under organic certification. But in the meantime, her farm’s turnover plummeted while bank bills piled up.
Other poultry farmers in the Yonne district found themselves in a similar situation because of Duc.
‘Niet iedereen is erin geslaagd zich te herpakken,’ zegt Jean-Bertrand Brunet, woordvoerder van de boerenvakbond in de regio, de Confédération Paysanne de l'Yonne. ‘De meesten hebben de standaard pluimveeproductie opgepakt en hebben moeten investeren in de aanpassing van hun hokken aan de nieuwe eisen van Duc. Die ombouw kost veel tijd en geld.’ De financiële lasten daarvoor liggen intussen bij de boer. ‘De boeren worden onderworpen aan beslissingen waarover ze zelf niets te zeggen hebben.’
More slaughtering, more chickens
Meanwhile, there are advanced plans to scale up the abattoir in Chailley, the nerve centre of Duc’s poultry farmers. Duc wants to double its capacity, the same as it did in 2017.
This expansion will bring the total slaughter to 265 thousand broilers per day. To achieve that number, eighty new mega-barns will be built around Chailley in addition to the 120 poultry farms already under contract to Duc.
In these barns, vastly more poultry can be bred simultaneously. As many as 39,600 broilers can be kept in a barn of 1800 m², with 22 chickens per m², as prescribed by ‘standard chicken’. That quantity is just under the European legislation for IPPC breeding farms: poultry farms with more than 40,000 broilers per barn must apply for an environmental permit. In addition, extensive environmental and soil research must be carried out. Therefore, the companies in Yonne that work with Duc’s model just manage to avoid this.
The same regime is imposed on all of these barns: they all get the same chicks, the Ross 308, the poultry gets the same feed ration, they are bred under artificial light and slaughtered between their 35th and 42nd day.
Plukon ranks among the top three in Europe
The Netherlands is the largest meat exporter in the EU. The Plukon Food Group, founded in 1978, has become the third-largest poultry processor in Europe and second-largest within the EU. German EW Group and the Dutch animal feed company De Heus now have a minority stake in Plukon. This company has a gross annual turnover of just under 2 billion euros and, in 2021, was responsible for the slaughter of some 468 million broiler chickens.
Together, the French LDC Group, the Ukrainian Myronivsky Hliboproduct and Plukon account for almost a third of the total European chicken slaughter. The products of these top three go to both ‘industry and food services’ (think Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds) and retail: supermarket chains like Albert Heijn, Lidl and Aldi.
And their market share will only increase, experts say.
‘Because of smaller margins, bankruptcies due to bird flu etcetera, the poultry market has been consolidating for years, with many horizontal mergers leading to less competition,’ says Peter van Horne, poultry economist at Wageningen University. ‘There are only a few companies active on the European market. Yes, there is competition, but if you are a smaller processor or abattoir, it is David against Goliath.’
The French LDC, Plukon’s biggest competitor in North-West Europe, has acquired several smaller players in the past decade; the group now has more than 44 abattoirs in the EU. Plukon itself has tripled in size over the past 15 years through takeovers and mergers in various countries, including Belgium, Germany, France and Poland. The company currently operates 27 production sites across Europe.
‘Plukon is not aiming for expansion in the Netherlands. The Dutch broiler farm excels in sustainability and is a beacon in the field of animal welfare and animal health. Plukon has the ambition to contribute to this sustainability in the future as well,’ the company proudly reported to Follow the Money.
But if Plukon would want to expand further in the Netherlands, it remains to be seen whether there is space for it. ‘There has been no growth potential in the Netherlands for years, due to the complicated legislation around permits,’ says poultry economist Van Horne. ‘If a country then decides to switch to the production of a chicken breed that requires twice as much space, the big companies will simply cross the border to find the space they need.’
Van Horne is referring to the commitment made by all major Dutch retailers to only sell chicken products with a recognised animal welfare label, such as Better Life, by 2020. Rabobank estimates that this shift will reduce the total poultry production in the Netherlands by more than 25 per cent in the coming years.
And to top it all off, the Dutch government announced in February that it plans to reduce the total livestock population by 30 per cent over the next ten years. ‘Because we have reached the limit of CO2 emissions,’ said Henk Staghouwer, Minister of Agriculture, recently: ´We must not ignore this.’
‘It is incredibly difficult to get permits to set up new projects in The Netherlands’
Plukon said that CO2 legislation has had ‘no influence whatsoever’ on their business operations. But experts and professionals in the poultry sector seriously doubt that.
In an interview with trade magazine PoultryWorld, Plukon CEO Peter Poortinga already stated in 2016, which is when Duc was acquired in France, that expansion within the Netherlands was becoming increasingly difficult: ‘It is incredibly difficult to get permits to set up new projects here.’ Poortinga reported that the expansion outside the Netherlands was aimed to ‘close our own chains again’. The company hopes to cushion the blow of future shortages of their Dutch production this way.
‘I am picking up signals from professionals in the sector that larger companies are seeking growth opportunities abroad, because of the many hurdles they have to overcome in the Netherlands,’ says Aalt den Herder, secretary of the Dutch Union of Poultry Farmers (NVP).
De intensivering en schaalvergroting in de agrarische sector heeft ook de Nederlandse pluimveesector veranderd. Sinds 2000 is het aantal Nederlandse kippenhouderijen van 3860 tot 1720 gezakt: meer dan een halvering, volgens de meest recente cijfers van het CBS. En hoewel het aantal bedrijven gestaag is afgenomen, is de productie van verschillende soorten kippen – vleeskuikens, leghennen en ouderdieren – gelijk gebleven: rond de 100 miljoen.
The average number of broilers per farm has risen sharply. In 2000, there were 46,730 broilers; in 2020, there will be 75,942, an increase of almost 50 per cent. The average slaughter weight has also increased significantly – through optimal nutrition and extensive genetic selection – from 1.9 kg in 2000 to over 2.5 kg currently.
In 2020, the Netherlands exported around 1.66 billion kilos of chicken meat worth 2.3 billion euros, most of it for the European internal market.
In the Yonne district, there have been several incidents in which local residents opposed to the poultry projects have been put under pressure by Duc or its project partners. For instance, in Saint-Brancher, a town in southern Yonne. Plans to build a broiler barn with 39,600 chickens was met by fierce local opposition.
The project required an amendment to the local planning regulations (PLUi). According to the PLUi, the two plots of land where the barn was planned were not suitable; this was because of the protected status of the Morvan mountain area where the town is located.
Joëlle Guyard, the mayor of Saint-Brancher: ‘We have a manifesto stating that industrial projects that are not compatible with maintaining a good balance between the environment and nature have no place here. That is why the local council opposed the amendment to the PLUi required for this poultry project.’
Guyard recounts how a Duc spokesman then put pressure on her. ‘He told me that my way of doing things was outdated, that we were the ones in the wrong, that the prefect [the local representative of the state] would intervene and have the last say, that even if I opposed the project, my decision would not be valid [...]. If the city council did not approve the project, Duc and his shareholders would implement a “plan B”.
‘I am scared sometimes, and I’m not sleeping well. They are not mild-mannered types,’ Guyard said.
Duc’s spokesman declined to comment on the mayor’s story.
Stockbreeder Didier Couhault – the initiator of this project and Duc’s partner – then ups the pressure even more: ‘We might even go to court,’ he says. And then: ‘This project will go ahead no matter what.’
Duc invited some farmers to visit a new broiler barn project in Villiers-le-Bois, roughly 80 kilometres northeast of Saint-Brancher. This pilot project was to encourage them to join Duc’s production network.
‘When we found out, we asked for a public meeting with Duc and the farmer on whose land the project was planned,’ says Christine Gheza. Animal rights organisation L214 was also present at the meeting; the area was locked down using that as an argument. Gheza: ‘Five police brigades were present to detain, search and question people. It felt like we were being heavily pressured. So much for an open conversation.’
But it was already too late: the mayor had already approved the building permit for the final project. The local residents’ appeal – their houses are located about 200 metres from the mega barn – was rejected, and the barn has since been built.
After about 35 days, the first chickens are already slaughtered
The residents experience a lot of odour and noise pollution, especially when the barns are being cleaned. Heavy lorries drive back and forth from the farm to the abattoir at night and early in the morning, and giant fans are constantly in operation. Gheza can see it all from her garden.
‘The first batch of chicks arrived on 1 March 2021,’ her notes state. On 9 April, trucks came to collect the chickens to take them to the abattoir. After a 15-day cleaning break, the second batch arrived; it was collected on 25 May. ‘We are now at batch 7: it arrived around 25 January,’ the notes say.
Gheza says that the first batch of chickens was collected as soon as possible within the permitted removal period. Testimonies from other keepers confirm this: after about 35 days, the first chickens are already slaughtered. Nearly 4000 birds intended for consumption are collected prematurely. This is a way for the manufacturer to maximise profits and make optimal use of the barn space. The remaining chickens continue to grow for another week.
The tight control exerted by large agricultural consortia such as Plukon gives the abattoirs enormous power over the farmers. The role of the poultry farmers in the French system is limited to breeding the animals.
During an interview in 2018, Kees van Oers, the former chief procurement officer of Plukon and involved in the reorganisation of the French chain, said: ‘Duc owns the chickens. We supply the day-old chicks to our poultry farmers, and we pay for the feed.’
‘We are merely employees on our own farm’
When a farm must be reorganised to accommodate the production of a different type of chicken, that responsibility lies with the farmer. ‘Technical risk’ Van Oers calls it, but ‘the market risk lies with the abattoirs,’ he argues.
Couhault, the farmer who plans to start a poultry farm in Saint-Brancher with Duc, sees it differently. ‘We are merely employees on our own farm,’ he says. The breed he is to raise for Duc, the Ross 308, is a fast-growing chicken, but the species is more vulnerable to disease and requires more work. ‘Everything must be very precise; there is no room for error.’
Poultry farmers who go into business with Duc have to replace their organic chickens with fast-growing breeds. The demand from the French market for organic chicken was ‘not very promising’, a Plukon spokesperson tells Follow the Money. The farms were asked to switch to a faster-growing breed: the Ross 308.
De Ross 308 is door het fokbedrijf Aviagen - onderdeel van de Duitse EW Group – ontwikkeld als snelle, grote groeier die minder calorieën in het voer nodig heeft. In Nederland staat het ras bekend als de ‘plofkip’.
Six projects are under development in Marne and the Ardennes, commissioned by feed producer De Heus, which has a 40 per cent stake in Plukon. One of these barns will house up to 257,600 chickens at a time, which corresponds to an annual production of 1.8 million chickens. A large part of these chickens will be slaughtered by Duc in Chailley.
Both companies, EW Group and De Heus, have a minority stake in Plukon.
Couhault argues that he is only there to breed the chickens and has no choice about which breed of chicken to produce, let alone determine the price of his chickens. Meanwhile, he has taken out a loan to build the new barns. And his gas and electricity bills are sky-high: the barns are artificially lit and intensely heated to promote the growth of the chicks.
The farmer explains how tight the margins are. Due to a problem with the feed, a batch of chickens at a farm in a neighbouring village weighed only 2.3 kg instead of the expected 2.5 kg. ‘If something goes wrong with the feeding, it is immediately reflected in the weight of this chicken breed. And you immediately feel the effect on your earnings.’
Duc pays its suppliers according to the weight of the chickens per square metre, with a minimum of 9.18 euros. In other words, Duc pays the farmers 40 euro cents per full-grown chicken – or 16 cents per kilo at a target weight of 2.5 kilos.
‘Farmers are not the owners of the chickens, Duc is. Therefore, it is logical that substantive questions should be put to Duc’
‘Between the big corporations, the abattoirs and the feed companies, poultry farmers have few alternatives to fall back on. They are bound by the market value, which leaves them with limited autonomy, and therefore in the hands of the market and what the industry wants,’ Den Herder says.
Several poultry farmers we approached for this investigation did not want to talk to us and referred us to Duc headquarters, and some were even instructed not to speak to journalists. When asked about the reason for this, Plukon replied that within the model that Duc applies in France, ‘farmers are not the owners of the chickens, Duc is. Therefore, it is logical that substantive questions should be put to the owner.’
‘The dirty work’
The expansion of the Chailley abattoir will receive a 395 thousand euro grant through the government’s economic stimulus plan, ‘France Relance’, which started in 2020. Officially, it received this grant because the expansion ‘improves animal protection, health and safety in the workplace and ‘strengthens competitiveness’. On top of that, 40,000 euros came from the European Union’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). Duc itself only invested 40,000 euros.
The expansion plans are still awaiting an environmental impact assessment. But that only concerns the abattoir’s operation, not that of the 200 broiler barns that will be supplying it. The environmental impact assessment, therefore, does not address the increase in greenhouse gas, CO2 and ammonia emissions caused by barn expansions.
‘Now that very little is possible in the Netherlands due to strict regulations, Plukon comes here to do its dirty work,’ sighs Catherine Schmitt, president of the Yonne Nature Environnement association. ‘But these companies are enough to deter you from eating chicken. The farmers’ first job in the morning is to remove the carcasses,’ she says. The intensive working methods are not good for the health of these chickens.
This project is a collaboration between Mediapart (Amélie Poinssot), Lighthouse Reports (Ludo Hekman) and Follow the Money (Lukas Kotkamp).