Chicken: We love it! Chicken production in the U.S. has doubled over the past 25 years, to 160 million chickens every week. That makes it sound like it’s a great time to be a chicken grower, but John Oliver explained Sunday night that it is most assuredly not.
The industry is dominated by four huge poultry companies—Tyson, Pilgrim’s, Sanderson Farms, and Perdue—who control the lives of chicken farmers living at or below the poverty line.
Ninety-seven percent of chicken is produced on contract farms, where farmers pay for the land and equipment, while companies just provide the chickens ... and a lot of rules about how they have to be raised (i.e. without fresh air or sunlight.)
Although the growers technically own their facilities and equipment, the companies force them to pay for upgrades that sometimes cost more than their original buildings, and they typically have to take out loans for all that stuff. If the farmers say no? Well, no more chickens.
But it’s actually more subtle and ruthless than that: Growers all compete in a tournament with other farms in their area, and companies punish the losers with heavy financial penalties. They can also retaliate against complainers or weaker performers by providing them with lower-quality chicks, guaranteeing that they lose future tournaments (and risk losing their farms altogether).
The Obama administration offered reforms that farmers desperately needed, but congress has neutered them every year thanks to Rep. Steve Womack, who “coincidentally” represents the Third District of Arkansas, home to ... wait for it ... Tyson Foods.
It’s a fucked up situation, but Oliver hopes to prevent it this year with a campaign to call Appropriations Committee members (here’s the list) and have them kill Womack’s anti-chicken-reform rider. Hey, it worked for Net Neutrality. Why not chicken?