Brow Beat

Watch John Oliver Explain the Abuses of the Chicken Industry (Not the Ones You Think)

If you know anything about the poultry industry, it’s probably that most birds raised for meat aren’t treated very well. But you might not know that the farmers who raise those birds are also pressured, exploited, and pushed to the breaking point by the conditions imposed on them by companies like Perdue and Tyson.

In the main story from this week’s Last Week Tonight, John Oliver explains how most modern chicken farmers have virtually no control over their birds or their income, and how poultry companies prevent them from speaking out about their unfair contracts and pitiful earnings. Journalist Christopher Leonard (who appears in the above clip around 7:34) detailed the payment system known as the “tournament” in Slate last year:

Under the tournament, chicken farmers do not get paid for how much food they raise. Instead, poultry companies like Tyson pay the farmers based on a ranking system that compares each farmer’s performance against his neighbor’s. The winners are rewarded while the losers are paid so little that many go out of business. Farmers have no control over the main criteria for their success in the tournament—the health of the chickens and the quality of the feed that Tyson provides them. This makes the tournament more like a lottery.

If you’d like to know more about how the chicken industry exploits farmers—once you’re done editing your local representative’s Wikipedia page—you can read two excerpts from Leonard’s deeply reported 2014 book, The Meat Racket, here and here.