John Oliver Skewers Chicken Companies & The Way He Says They Treat Farmers Will Put You Off Your Dinner — VIDEO
Chicken is so ubiquitous in this country, on virtually every restaurant menu and fast-food poster and household dinner table, that we totally take for granted where it comes from. Chicken is actually a huge business, and according to John Oliver, one with less-than-scrupulous practices. On Sunday night's episode of Last Week Tonight, John Oliver skewered chicken companies for their treatment of farmers, revealing the unfair contract system that keeps the corporations rich and in charge and the ones who actually raise the chickens below the poverty line.
In order to set up his investigation, Oliver wanted to emphasize just how much Americans love their chicken. In a clip, National Chicken Council board member Michael Welch says that the poultry industry produces $160 million chicks a week.
A hundred and sixty million chicks a week. Those are Warren Beatty numbers. Those are Rob Lowe at the St. Elmo's Fire premiere party numbers. You know what? Those are clean-shaven Leonardo DiCaprio on a yacht anchored outside the Cannes Film Festival numbers. That's a lot of chicks.
Oliver further emphasizes his point with the "It tastes like chicken" reference point we all use for a vast variety of other meats. It's used as a reference point because anyone who eats meat eats chicken. And who does this benefit the most? The poultry industry's four biggest chicken companies, Oliver says: Pilgrim's, Sanderson Farms, Tyson, and Perdue.
Oliver then addresses what most viewers might be thinking: No, this isn't yet another investigation into the treatment of chickens, which he says is pretty terrible. However, his story is about the treatment of the men and women who raise chickens, whose treatment by the big companies he just listed is also pretty terrible. But that's not something the companies want us to know, Oliver says, so in their promotional videos, they show seemingly happy poultry farmers talking pleasantly about their jobs, always, Oliver points out, over "jangly guitar music."
However, documentaries about the poultry industry show a very different story, in which real-life farmers talk about the struggles of their jobs. Oliver reveals that numerous studies have shown that individuals whose main source of income was chicken farming lived below or near the poverty line.
How could the people who make the meat we eat the most barely be making a living?
The answer: contract farming. Oliver compares the system to "chicken daycare" because companies essentially drop off baby chicks to a farm and then come back about a month later to pick them up when they're fully grown. "I'm assuming that's how daycare works," he says.
And, again, when chicken companies present this system in promotional videos, they make it sound great for the farmers — and, again, over "jangly fucking guitar music." But if you break the system down, it looks something like this: the businesses own the chickens and the farmers own all the equipment used to raise them. In other words, the businesses own the thing that makes money while the chicken growers own the things that cost money.
As for those inhumane conditions the chickens are kept in that Oliver mentioned earlier, they're actually part of the contractual terms and the farmer has little control over changing them. One clip shows how a farmer wishes he could give his chickens sunlight and fresh air, but the company he's bound to won't allow it.
Of course the chicken companies won't let you do that. They know that chickens are like reality stars — the happier they are the less money they're worth. There's a reason that E! canceled Keeping Up With Alan and Arlene Alda, Partners and Best Friends For 50 Years.
Businesses also have ways of keeping the farmers in debt and under their thumbs, by demanding expensive upgrades in exchange for chicks. One farmer reads a laundry list of upgraded equipment she was demanded to get — nipple drinkers, tunnel houses, and blackout curtains — which sometimes end up costing more than the original chicken houses.
That must be frustrating. Farming chickens is like hooking up with James Franco. "Look, James, first you wanted us to try nipple drinkers, which was weird, but I put up with it. Then it was the tunnel house, which was even worse, and now you want us to try blackout curtains? No, James, no. I'm out.
But that's not all. Not only do growers have to spend money on equipment, but they're also pitted against one another in competitive racket tournaments. The ones in the top-performing half will get a bonus, but the ones on the bottom actually get financial deductions.
And what that means is you'll be competing against your neighbors. ... It's like an agricultural Glengarry GlenRoss, or Hengarry HenRoss, if you will. ABC. A — always. B — be. C — clucking.
All jokes aside, the pressure to keep up can have devastating results. One farmer who lost a tournament and was terminated from his contract ended up taking his own life, Oliver says. This is when Oliver interjects and tells viewers, who at this point are undoubtedly angry at the companies, to save some room, because they're about to get even angrier.
He then plays a clip in which a chicken industry spokesman is asked why so many chicken growers live below the poverty line and his answer is "Which poverty line are you referring to?"
What the fuck are you talking about? It doesn't matter. The poverty line is like the age of consent. If you find yourself parsing exactly where it is, you've probably already done something very, very wrong.
So what happens when farmers decide to stand up for themselves and speak out against the system? They're punished with lower-quality chickens, which the industry rates from one to 10 — one being the best and 10 being the worst.
When controlling assholes threaten their dependence with numerically inferior chicks, that's not a responsible business model. That's Entourage.
And like a bad catch-22, if farmers receive inferior chicks, then they'll likely lose the tournament. So many of them are terrified of this kind of retaliation that they don't even attend federal meetings organized to specifically address these very issues. But the ones who were brave enough were able to successfully get new laws written to protect the growers. However, every year since the rules were written, a rider has been inserted that specifically prohibits them from being enforced.
Oliver then reveals that this rider is supported by politicians like Congressman Steve Womack. Why? Perhaps it's because his hometown just happens to be where Tyson's headquarters are located, or perhaps because his top contributors are Tyson and the National Chicken Council.
Or maybe he's just sexually attracted to chickens and is jealous that farmers get to spend so much time with them.
Either way, he's fought to give farmers more protection, like when he voted against Marcy Kaptur's proposed Agricultural Act of 2014. So what's Oliver's solution to "inspiring" the 51 local representatives on the voting committee to support this bill and other similar laws? It's simple: editing their Wikipedia pages to read "chicken fucker."
Unless they want that "chicken fucker" label to follow them for the rest of their lives, they might want to think extra carefully about which way they're going to vote. Because "chicken fucker" accusations do not come off a Wikipedia page easily. Or if they do, they tend to go right back up.
Watch the entire segment below:
Images: Last Week Tonight With John Oliver/YouTube