It has been a demanding first few days for Clint Rivers at the helm of US poultry giant Pilgrim's Pride. Against a backdrop of soaring grain costs, the company has sold off its turkey business and streamlined its chicken operations. And, as Dean Best writes, more tough decisions lay ahead.

Taking on the top job at a multi-billion dollar business is a demanding task.

Filling the hot seat when your predecessor has suddenly passed away makes the job that bit more formidable.

Being at the helm when commodity costs are really starting to hit margins is no doubt a baptism of fire.

Clint Rivers, the recently-appointed president and CEO at Pilgrim's Pride, is facing all three of these scenarios in his first weeks in charge of the US poultry giant.

Rivers was elected on 5 March, replacing Pilgrim's previous boss O.B. Goolsby Jr., who died in December after suffering a stroke, while on a hunting trip with customers in Texas.

Goolsby's sudden death shook the business but, in Rivers, the company's shareholders have an executive with over two decades of experience at the company.

Rivers joined Pilgrim's as a quality assurance manager in 1986 and became plant manager of a production site in Texas three years later. In 1992, Rivers became vice president of the company's prepared food operations and took on more senior roles in that part of the business until 2004 when he became chief operating officer.

Upon Rivers' appointment, Pilgrim's chairman Ken Pilgrim hinted that the executive had some tough decisions ahead. "Clint loves a challenge," Pilgrim said. Rivers agreed. "It's clear that we have a lot of work ahead of us," he said, although he added that he had faith Pilgrim's could "deliver on our mission of being a world-class food company".

First though, those tough decisions. This week, just five days after Rivers was elected to the top job, Pilgrim's sold its turkey processing operations to US natural and organic group Hain Celestial. Rivers said the deal would leave Pilgrim's free to focus on its core business - chicken.

Clint Rivers, president and CEO, Pilgrim's Pride

Just two days later, the focus of the financial press switched to Pilgrim's chicken business when the company announced it was to close a processing complex and six of its 13 distribution centres in the US.

The company blamed a "crisis" facing the US poultry industry, pointing to soaring ingredients costs and an oversupply of chicken in the country. The country's chicken processors, much like the rest of the meat sector and parts of the wider food industry, has been coming under increasing pressure from higher grain costs resulting from the spike in biofuel production.

Rivers saved most of his ire for Washington, blaming the US government's "ill-advised policy" to subsidise ethanol production for the soaring cost of corn.

"The cost burden is already enormous, and it's growing even larger," Rivers said. "Based on current commodity futures markets, our company's total costs for corn and soybean meal to feed our flocks in fiscal 2008 would be more than $1.3 billion higher than what they were two years ago. We simply must find ways to pass along these higher costs."

News of Pilgrim's cuts sent shares in other US poultry groups soaring. Much like the recent cuts and consolidation seen in the beef business, Wall Street said rationalisation in the poultry sector was vital in improving industry margins.

Rivers has warned further cuts in the poultry industry are inevitable as processors are forced to readjust to food inflation and weakening consumer demand.

The first few days of Rivers' reign has already seen some tough decisions. It seems likely there will be more ahead.