Big Poultry Isn’t Just Terrible for Chickens—It Treats Farmers Poorly Too

Sunday’s episode of ‘Last Week Tonight’ took an in-depth look at the plight of contract farming.
May 18, 2015·
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

On Sunday night, John Oliver dedicated nearly 20 minutes of his satirical news show Last Week Tonight to chickens. Like his former boss, Jon Stewart, Oliver has directed quite a few of his rants at the meat industry, but as he acknowledged in the intro, Sunday’s story was different.

“I know what you’re thinking,” Oliver said. “You’re thinking, oh, this is just going to be another story about how horribly chickens are treated. And I know—we do hear about that a lot.”

But animal cruelty was secondary this time around. Instead, Oliver gave HBO’s Sunday-night audience more than they might ever otherwise know about the terrible conditions to which the poultry industry subjects its contract farmers. While they might not be penned up in dark henhouses with little room to move, the people tasked with raising the amazing amount of chicken Americans consume—more than 80 pounds annually per capita—are living in their own dire straits.

As Oliver details, the farmers own the property and the equipment while the poultry company owns the birds and feed, which it pays the farmer to raise. So the company not only outsources the actual farming—raising the chickens—but the overhead investment too. The majority of people who rely on contract poultry farming as their sole source of income live near or below the poverty line.

“It’s like an agricultural Glengarry Glen Ross,” Oliver joked, referring to David Mamet’s play and subsequent film about shady real estate deals, “or Hengarry Hen Ross, if you will.”

RELATED: This Former Industrial Chicken Farmer Wants to Go Big With Pasture-Raised Eggs

When farmers do speak up about their work—which requires them to follow strict protocols for the birds’ feed and living conditions in order to get paid—they often end up losing their contracts. Carole Morrison, who used to raise birds for Perdue, let Robert Kenner shoot in her facilities and had her contract terminated just before the director’s documentary, Food, Inc., was released. Officially, she was dropped for refusing to pay for “upgrades” to her farm that would completely enclose her chicken house. Similarly, Craig Watts, who was also on contract with Perdue, was subjected to intense scrutiny from the company after he allowed an animal welfare group to film inside his facilities. While he attested that the tragic conditions seen in the video were the result of the company’s own standards, Perdue alledged that the sick, dying birds were signs of Watts’ violating its animal welfare standards.

But Oliver has a plan to make things better for farmers. There’s an amendment to the agriculture appropriations bill—previously voted down in the House Committee on Appropriations—that would give contract farmers legal standing in court and more rights to speak up and speak out about their situation. It may be up for consideration again when the committee meets next month, and if anyone votes against it, Oliver promises to undertake a guerrilla campaign to blanket the Internet with damning allegations about the nature of the lawmakers’ relationship with chickens. Which, of course, the host puts far more bluntly.