New Restrictions Don't Fly With Mail-Order Chicken Shippers

Mail-order hatcheries are crying fowl about new restrictions on shipping chicks and other baby birds.

Specifically, they are concerned that the U.S. Postal Service's new shared transportation network partner, FedEx Corp., and a major airline that hauls mail are refusing to handle the small animals, making it difficult to mail birds because of the limited shipping choices and much higher costs.

Without these transportation agreements, hatcheries have no efficient way of fulfilling mail orders for birds around the country. Day-old chickens, game birds like pheasants and quail, and waterfowl like ducks and geese can survive the first 72 hours after hatching without food or water. Delivery delays lead to deaths.

Traditionally, the USPS has carried day-old poultry for mail-order hatcheries through its relationship with its carriers, such as Emery Airlines, which used to help move Priority Mail. Last month, however, the USPS replaced Emery through its shared network with FedEx, and FedEx does not ship live animals.

“Our policy is that we do not ship live animals in our regular trunk fleet, and we have no plans to,” said FedEx spokeswoman Carla Richards. “Our system is not configured to handle these types of animals, including monitoring the temperature and pressure of the cargo hold.”

The USPS said it will ship the birds, but through other means such as commercial airlines. However, Murray McMurray, who runs a mail-order hatchery in Webster City, IA, and whose company has shipped through the U.S. mail for 84 years, is concerned.

McMurray said that Northwest Airlines, which carried nearly 100 percent of his company's chicks, stopped moving birds for the USPS on Sept. 1. Reportedly, 30 percent of day-old chicks transported in the cargo holds of Northwest planes are dead on arrival, the airline said, so it decided to no longer transport chicks at postal rates of 31 cents a pound.

Northwest said that it wanted to charge a cargo rate of 93 cents per pound, allowing the airline to provide special attention to the chicks, but that the USPS did not agree to the higher compensation. As a result, Northwest stopped carrying chicks this way. The airline will continue to accept animals as cargo but will charge hatcheries the same fees it charges to fly a pet dog or cat.

This could increase rates for McMurray from about $5 for a package of 25 chicks to $122, depending on where the company is shipping products. As a result it effectively would put the company out of business.

USPS spokeswoman Monica Hand said the postal service could do the special handling, but “[Northwest] still came back to us with a higher rate. … We will not accept [the higher rate] until they can back it up with data that supports it.”

Hardest hit by Northwest's decision are hatcheries in Iowa, South Dakota and North Dakota.

“We are now left with three airlines with hubs all over the U.S., and we are not in a close proximity where we can truck to any of those places within the time allotment required. We are in trouble,” said McMurray, who has a 64-page color catalog, a Web catalog and a 350,000-name database.

Every week, the hatchery mails as many as 100,000 chicks to customers nationwide, including Martha Stewart and Oscar de la Renta. The low-priced delivery service the postal service provides is crucial to the business.

In addition, McMurray said he was concerned that Northwest's decision may prompt other airlines to follow suit.

“The end result of these actions is that there will no longer be a way to purchase poultry through the mail because no airlines will carry your order,” McMurray said. “Unless this can be resolved, Murray McMurray Hatchery and most other mail hatcheries will more than likely go out of business.”

McMurray said the changes also threaten the future of his customers.

“Every feed store, 4-H club, poultry equipment manufacturer, pharmaceutical company, school science project and any other individual or company [that] has a finger in raising poultry on the small scale will be hurt,” he said.

McMurray is so concerned that he and the rest of the nearly 100 hatcheries in the United States have formed a group, Bird Shippers of America.

“We are scrambling, trying to get the airline industry to change and to accept poultry universally,” he said.

The coalition has hired a lobbyist and is hoping to see legislation on this issue. It has also sent 12,000 letters to lawmakers around the country to get them to pressure the airlines and the postal service to investigate the issue.

It must be working. Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, introduced legislation last week that would require all airlines that carry U.S. mail to carry all of the mail. Noting that 11 hatcheries in his state alone are dependent on the USPS, Grassley said he wants to “protect small-town hatcheries from being run out of business.”

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