John Oliver Tackles the Crushing Debt Piled on America's Chicken Farmers


John Oliver’s long segment last night dealt with the lives of American chicken farmers, which are, unsurprisingly, almost as bad as the lives of the chickens themselves.

Factory farming in the United States is finely tuned to be unpleasant for everyone involved: the chickens, because they live short, panic-filled lives in dark, filthy places, the farmers because they operate under a deeply unfair system, where the four main poultry companies in the U.S. reap the profits and the farmers are left with the literal and metaphorical shit. In an industry worth an estimated $44.1 billion in 2013, the people doing the actual work are barely getting by.

As Oliver explained, chicken farmers are “loaned” all of their chickens by the four companies that produce about 97 percent of the chicken consumed in the U.S.: Tyson, Perdue, Sanderson Farms and Pilgrim’s Pride. But they buy their own farm equipment, and the industry constantly demands they make expensive upgrades. In other words, as Oliver dryly notes, the companies own everything “that makes money, and the farmers own everything that costs money.”

At the same time, none of those “upgrades” involve anything that would make the chicken’s lives better, and the farmers aren’t allowed to change the chicken’s living standards on their own.

“If you get that natural sunlight, the birds are more active,” explains a farmer named Craig, in a clip from a documentary produced by animal welfare organization Compassion in World Farming. “They don’t want that. They want them sitting down, getting up, taking a drink, a bite to eat, and then sitting back down. He gets fat then.”

The farmers also believe that complaining about any of these terms leads the companies to give them “inferior” chickens (the poultry industry denies this is the case). But there’s no denying this is a hard business to make a decent living: many chicken farmers live at or below the poverty line. The National Chicken Council, a lobbying group that represents the Big Four, isn’t eager to talk about that. In “Cock Fight,” a documentary from Fusion documentary, Tom Super, a spokesman for the National Chicken Council, was asked about the poverty of the farmers. He tried, ungracefully, to wiggle away.

“Which poverty line are you referring to?” he asked the filmmakers. “Is that a national poverty line? Is that a state poverty line? The poverty line in Mississippi and Alabama is different than it is in New York City.”

As a result of the segment, the National Chicken Council is about to have a very long day:

So is Rep. Steve Womack of Arkansas, who has stoutly refused to allow the USDA to enforce rules making life easier for the farmers, including a proposed rule that would make retaliation by the industry illegal. That could be, as Oliver points out, because Tyson is one of his biggest donors and because his district is where their world headquarters is located. Or, you know, Oliver says, “It could be because he’s sexually attracted to chickens and he’s jealous the farmers get to spend so much time with them.”

Couldn’t happen to a nicer group of people.

Screengrab via Last Week Tonight/HBO

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