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.