Chicken Farmers Gagged and Swindled by Giant Poultry Processors

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August 04, 2015 | 62,294 views

Story at-a-glance

  • John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” featured a scathing, but honest, expose on the plights of chicken farmers
  • Chicken farmers fall into debt to get into the business, then are beholden to the poultry industry’s demands
  • Chicken farmers are also paid via a tournament or “gladiator system,” which pits farmers against each other and penalizes those at the bottom
  • If the farmers speak out against the industry, they’ll face retaliation, such as receiving poor-quality chicks and feed

By Dr. Mercola

If you pick up a package of chicken breasts from your supermarket, it gives no clues to the controversies and political unrest facing the farmers that raised those chickens. Nor does it hint at the unethical, inhumane, and often unsanitary conditions that have become commonplace in "modern" poultry farming.

Who's to blame? The giant poultry processors – like Tyson Foods, Perdue Farms, Pilgrim's Pride, and Sanderson Farms – who dominate the industry and control the chicken farmers like puppets and punish those who dare to speak out against the system.

If you happened to catch John Oliver's HBO episode of "Last Week Tonight" that featured this issue (it aired in May 2015), you were party to one of the most compelling and honest exposes of US poultry production to be featured by mainstream media.

John Oliver Takes on Giant Poultry Processors

Poultry processors feature promotional videos of chicken farmers who appear happy and secure in their work, but this rosy picture is, according to Oliver, nothing but PR spin.

Many farmers tell a different story of hardship and financial ruin. More than 70 percent of chicken farmers live below the poverty line,1 despite the fact that chicken is in high demand in the US, due to a process known as contract farming.

Companies bring chicks in to individual farms, drop them off and then pick them up for processing after they're fully grown. Nearly all US chickens (97 percent) are raised in this manner, but the problem is that the poultry processors own the chickens while the farmers own the property and equipment. In other words, as Oliver put it:

"You [the farmer] own everything that costs money and we [the processor] own everything that makes money."

Many farmers go into significant debt (over $1 million) to start up their farms because they're led to believe they'll have a steady source of income. But then they're left at the complete mercy of the processors to continue on.

Even the growing conditions – the fact that chickens are raised indoors without access to sunlight and fresh air, for instance – are dictated by the poultry processors. Further, as farmers begin to pay off their debt, the processors can step in and demand costly upgrades, sending the farmers right back into the red.

Chicken Farmers Paid Using Cut-Throat Gladiator System and Face Retaliation for Speaking Out

Chicken farmers are also paid via a tournament or "gladiator system," which pits farmers against each other. Those ranked in the top half (producing the fattest chickens with the least amount of feed, for instance) receive a bonus payment while those at the bottom will get a penalty.

That may mean the farmers at the bottom receive about half the pay for the same number of chickens…

And when the farmers speak out against the industry, the processors retaliate by cutting the number and quality of chickens the farmers received. The industry denies this, but the farmers say otherwise.

Chicken farmer Mike Weaver told Politico that after he spoke at a USDA-hosted panel about the tournament system, Pilgrim's retaliated by giving him poor-quality chicks and feed. He told Politico:2

"They do it clandestinely… They have ways of getting back at you that's hard for you to prove."

The retaliations are no secret among the business – so much so that it's rare for chicken farmers to speak up at town hall meetings designed to get protective regulations in place. The poultry producers warn the farmers not to attend -- and the farmers listen lest they have their livelihood threatened.

Rules to Protect Chicken Farmers Are Not Being Enforced

Rules have been made to help protect the farmers, but each year the Grain Inspection, Packers, and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA) rider is inserted into the House Appropriations bill. This defunds the Agriculture Department's efforts to protect farmers.3

This isn't surprising, since the poultry industry spends million to lobby Congress on their behalf. As reported by EcoWatch:4

"Two lawmakers, Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), have led the charge to torpedo the GIPSA rider, but have been stymied repeatedly by colleagues like Rep. Steve Womack (R-AR)…

Womack, a member of the Appropriations Committee from the district where Tyson is headquartered, has received tens of thousands of dollars from individuals associated with Tyson and the National Chicken Council, the industry's trade group.

But the money flow does not stop there. Kaptur published a press release with the names of representatives who voted against her provision. Of them, in 2014, Reps. Jack Kingston (R-GA), Robert Aderholt (R-AL), and Henry Cuellar (D-TX) received contributions from Tyson. 

Rep. Andy Harris (R) received contributions from Perdue (both are based in Maryland); Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) received a donation from Pilgrim's Pride, and Sanderson gave thousands to the late Rep. Alan Nunnelee (R), who hailed from the Mississippi district where the company is headquartered…

Each of them received a substantial portion of the National Chicken Council's $302,900 in 2014 contributions… The National Chicken Council has spent more than $2.5 million [lobbying Washington] just in the last five years…

Tyson goes above and beyond with more than $9 million in recent lobbying expenditures; Perdue has spent hundreds of thousands, as has Pilgrim's; and Sanderson Farms has spent more than a million dollars in the last three years. They have each lobbied against GIPSA reform in some capacity."

On a positive note, the Agriculture bill for 2016 was recently approved by the House Appropriations Committee without the GIPSA defunding rider attached for the first time in years, although for now the poultry farmers are still being gagged...

Perdue Chicken Farmer Speaks Out

Positive change is on the horizon. Consumer demand has put pressure on meat companies like Tyson, Perdue, and Pilgrim's Pride to adjust their production practices. Fast-food chain Carl's Jr. even recently rolled out a burger made with grass-fed, free-range beef, promising to be free of antibiotics, steroids, and hormones,19 which shows that when enough consumers talk, corporations listen.

However, the best way to change the system is to stop supporting them. Instead, seek out a local farmer near you who is operating outside the constraints of these industry giants. By purchasing your meat from smaller farms that raise their animals in a humane fashion, according to organic principles, you're promoting the proliferation of such farms, which in the end will benefit everyone, including all the animals. The organic industry also tends to favor far more humane butchering practices, which is another important part of "ethical meat." The following organizations can help you locate farm-fresh foods — including organic grass-fed and finished meats — in your local area:

  1. Local Harvest -- This Web site will help you find farmers' markets, family farms, and other sources of sustainably grown food in your area where you can buy produce, grass-fed meats, and many other goodies.
  1. Farmers' Markets -- A national listing of farmers' markets.
  1. Eat Well Guide: Wholesome Food from Healthy Animals -- The Eat Well Guide is a free online directory of sustainably raised meat, poultry, dairy, and eggs from farms, stores, restaurants, inns, and hotels, and online outlets in the United States and Canada.
  1. Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) -- CISA is dedicated to sustaining agriculture and promoting the products of small farms.
  1. FoodRoutes -- The FoodRoutes "Find Good Food" map can help you connect with local farmers to find the freshest, tastiest food possible. On their interactive map, you can find a listing for local farmers, CSA's, and markets near you.

When shopping for antibiotic-free meat, you can also keep the following labels in mind to help you find truly high-quality meat:20

100% USDA Organic label offers excellent assurance that antibiotics have not been used at any stage of production.
"Grass-fed" label coupled with USDA Organic label means no antibiotics have been used, but if the "grass-fed" label appears alone, antibiotics may have been given.
"American Grass-fed" and "Food Alliance Grass-fed" labels indicate that in addition to having been raised on grass, the animal in question received no antibiotics.
The following three labels: "Antibiotic-free," "No antibiotic residues," and "No antibiotic growth promotants," have not been approved by the USDA and may be misleading if not outright fraudulent.
"Natural" or "All-Natural" is completely meaningless and has no bearing on whether or not the animal was raised according to organic principles. "Natural" meat and poultry products can by law receive antibiotics, hormones, and genetically engineered grains, and can be raised in confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs).

[+]Sources and References [-]Sources and References

  • 1 The Pew Charitable Trusts December 20, 2013
  • 2 Politico June 1, 2015
  • 3, 4 EcoWatch July 20, 2015
  • 5 CDC Threat Report 2013 Summary
  • 6 Review on Antimicrobial Resistance
  • 7, Antibiotic Resistance Threats in the United States, 2013
  • 8 Clinical Infectious Diseases July 22, 2015
  • 9 USDA, FAQs Equivalence of China’s Poultry Processing System
  • 10, 11, 12 EcoWatch March 5, 2014
  • 13 New York Times May 15, 2015
  • 14 Mother Jones May 20, 2015
  • 15 Politico July 24, 2015
  • 16 Environ Health Perspect. 2007 Feb; 115(2): 313–316.
  • 17 Reuters May 22, 2015
  • 18 WENN July 16, 2015
  • 19 USA Today December 9, 2014
  • 20 Labels about Antibiotic Use