WASHINGTON – Chicken farmers, poultry companies and consumers are benefiting from healthy competition in the broiler chicken industry, according to a new study.

"On the national scale, it is the overall conclusion of this study that the chicken industry is a competitive and thriving sector," wrote Dr. Thomas Elam, an agricultural economist and president of FarmEcon LLC. "Intense competition among chicken companies leads to product innovation and lower prices for consumers. The vertically integrated structure of the industry has given it an advantage compared to its competitors and allowed it to respond quickly to changing consumer demand."

The National Chicken Council commissioned Mr. Elam's study, which was released in preparation for a workshop on competition in agriculture to be held Friday at Alabama A&M University in Normal, Alabama, by the U.S. Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The study is posted to the web site www.nationalchickencouncil.com

The vertically integrated system also benefits the independent family farmers who raise chickens under contracts with the companies, Mr. Elam wrote.

"Contract growers are insulated from integrator margin risk by fixed-price contract terms. They receive payments that are not tied to market variations in prices of chicken and feed," the study said. "These risks are largely shifted to the integrator, who absorbs the financial losses from adverse weather, general disease outbreaks, feed quality, and other factors potentially adversely affecting live chicken performance."

Another study by the Farmers' Legal Action Group found 75% of broiler growers surveyed were satisfied with their decision to go into broiler growing, Mr. Elam continued. He added that many chicken companies have waiting lists of people who want to become contract growers and lists of farmers already in the business who want to expand their operations. This shows growers can earn a good return on their investments, he wrote.

"If, in general, growers were chronically earning less than a competitive return on their investment and labor, these waiting lists would likely not exist," he wrote.

Chicken production and consumption has grown almost every year since the 1960s as consumer tastes changed, new markets emerged and new products were developed, Mr. Elam noted. As a result, chicken companies have achieved a strong competitive position with respect to other meats.

"Contract chicken growers have historically been able to expand their businesses as chicken production has grown and have had the opportunity to share in the financial success of the entire sector," he wrote.

Today, the broiler chicken industry is more concentrated than it has been in the past, Mr. Elam wrote, with the top four companies having 53% of production in 2009 compared with 40% in 1992. However, he added, the chicken industry is less concentrated than meatpacking at 79% or pork processing at 65%.

Wholesale and retail chicken prices, adjusted for inflation, have declined relative to overall consumer prices and major competing meats, the study relayed.

"The declining real prices of retail and wholesale chicken are evidence that real cost savings are being passed on to consumers via market competition," the study added.

Vertical integration has proven to be a very successful and cost-competitive method to organize chicken production and marketing, the study continued. "As a result, the success of vertically integrated chicken production in the U.S. has spread to the global chicken sector,” the study stated. Chicken producers around the world have adopted vertical integration in order to compete more effectively, the study claimed.