Koch Foods Inc., one of a handful of giant food companies that dominate chicken production in the U.S., is defendant in a civil rights discrimination suit recently filed in federal court in Mississippi by a south Alabama attorney representing a lone black chicken grower. Plaintiffs say he was the last black poultry grower contracted by Koch.
David v. Goliath the case can be described, considering the size of Chicago-based Koch and the reputation of giant food producers to hold a grudge against growers who dare complain.
Speaking out against a poultry giant — let alone suing one — is a sure way for a grower to be put out of business, said Jonathan Buttram, then-president of the
Alabama Growers Association, speaking to Business Alabama at a big show hearing in 2010 in north Alabama hosted by Attorney General Eric Holder, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and U.S. Department of Justice Assistant Attorney General for Antitrust Christine Varney.
Even with a new administration talking about reform, not many of the slew of Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia growers who attended that meeting seemed secure in speaking out.
“Although I came here on my own today, it’s not without a lot of worry when I leave that I’ll have some retaliation,” Garry Staples, vice president of the Alabama Contract Poultry Growers Association, told the panel of D.C. luminaries
Nine years later, Mississippi poultry grower Carlton Sanders went into bankruptcy after an investigation of Koch’s treatment of Sanders by the U.S. Department of Agriculture office in Birmingham in 2017. USDA officials called top Koch executives to Birmingham to hear its findings of “evidence of unjust discrimination,” according to documents obtained by the plaintiff attorney through the Freedom of Information Act, in Sanders v Koch Food Inc.
Lack of enforcement power by the USDA is a major weakness in the regulatory structure around the industry, say growers, including those who dared to speak out at the Alabama hearing almost 10 years ago.
Findings by USDA still have to be passed over to the Department of Justice for enforcement. If Justice ever acts, it is often too late — after the grower is out of business.
That’s what happened to plaintiff Sanders. He lost his farm in bankruptcy and suffered a stroke and a heart attack, even though the USDA tried and failed to broker a settlement between him and Koch.
Representing Sanders in his current suit is Daphne, Alabama attorney Elizabeth Citrin, appointed by a Mississippi federal bankruptcy judge.