We still had 30 minutes left before making the trek to Charley’s on the eve of my friend’s 21st birthday. To pass time, we watched that night’s episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” guaranteeing a laugh and a lesson.
Two weeks later, I can only think about the lesson.
In May 17’s episode, Oliver dissected the contract farming of chickens. While the show snarkily mentioned the horrible reality chickens face before becoming our food, it mainly focused on the treatment and conditions of chicken farmers by Big Agriculture. In one specific instance, Oliver compared the lives of chicken farmers to that of indentured servants.
Currently, chicken is the most consumed meat in the United States. Consumption has nearly doubled in the last 25 years, from 80 million to 160 million chickens per week. However, merely four companies — Tyson, Perdue, Pilgrim’s and Sanderson Farms — control the majority of the poultry market. This monopolization of the meat market has effectively created a system where most chicken farmers live near or below the federal poverty line.
Contract farming is disturbingly popular in our nation’s poultry industry, with 97 percent of chickens raised by contract in 2011. In theory, contract farming sounds like a good practice, but in reality, it’s a manipulative, greedy system. Poultry companies own the birds, the grain fed to the birds and the meat processing companies. They dictate the arbitrary requirements farmers must comply with, such as the number of fans or the brightness of the light bulbs in a chicken coop. They rate the chicken farmers produce against others in their area, creating a gladiator-like system, as Oliver dubbed it.
Meanwhile, poultry farmers put all of their resources, money and lives into their farms, believing they will make the sums of money that companies imply is normal. However, after a decent first year, the income of most chicken farmers declines as they are pushed further into debt after being forced to make inexplicable upgrades. Many chicken farmers refuse to publicly speak out against the deplorable conditions they endure in fear of retribution. While poultry companies claim arbitrary penalties don’t exist, the fact that most farmers are completely unwilling to speak against their conditions suggests otherwise.
In last year’s Appropriations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D–Ohio) advocated for a bill rider that would allow for farmers to speak about their conditions without fear of retaliation. Unfortunately, the amendment failed in a 20-29 vote.
There’s still hope, though. The committee is set to meet again to discuss the 2016 Fiscal Year Commerce. At the end of “Last Week,” Oliver called for viewers to contact the 51 U.S. House Representatives that make up the Appropriations Committee to urge them to support more protective legislation for chicken farmers. Notifying your representatives and threatening them with the term “chicken fuckers,” as Oliver suggested, is an easy and sometimes effective option to help enact change.
However, no matter how effective I believe our government is, the representative system isn’t enough. Citizens must combat the root of the problem: predatory corporations.
As the biggest meat industry in the United States, it seems unlikely that chicken consumption will decrease anytime soon. Switching to local poultry products to push the industry toward change is a more viable solution.
This capitalistic system exists in many of society’s food industries. Choosing companies in the market that create an ethical product will help decrease the percentage of living things being taken advantage of and undermine predatory practices.
I thought about all of this awful information Oliver highlighted in his late-night talk show while at Charley’s, trying to convince my friend to take his shot.
Maybe eating locally and ethically created products is a better reality than trying to completely eradicate poultry from American diets. Personally, I feel a little bit better knowing the chicken I just ate wasn’t tortured throughout its entire life and the farmer who helped produce it in order to create a livelihood for himself and his family wasn’t taken advantage of by evil organizations.
It seems like a small step in the right direction.