WASHINGTON, June 10, 2015 – There’s a very real chance that an HBO program hosted by a British comedian could have an impact on upcoming U.S. agricultural policy.

John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight” ruffled the collective feathers of the nation’s chicken industry on May 17 with an 18-minute segment that accused large companies of systematically mistreating their contract growers. The video of the segment was uploaded to the show’s YouTube channel and has been viewed 2.66 million times in the past three-and-a-half weeks.

Industry leaders called the show “a completely one-sided view of U.S. poultry production” while advocates for the contract growers said it was the most publicity the issue has gotten in the last 15 years. The segment detailed grievances held against large poultry producers for their vertically integrated model, which supplies the animals, feed, and veterinary care to the contract growers, who supply labor and production housing.

Defenders of this model include the National Chicken Council, which posted online a statement pointing out that the system “has allowed us to insulate farmers from the risk of changing market prices for chicken and feed ingredients such as corn and soybean meal.” But the total reliance on one company for production supplies leaves a producer vulnerable, critics say, and some farmers are speaking out, saying they have been subject to retaliation for voicing their displeasure with the supply method and “tournament” payment system used in poultry production.

According to an NCC issue brief, the “tournament” system is a “performance-based structure” allowing for producers to be “compensated according to both the quality and quantity of their roosts, as well as how efficiently they are raised.” Under the tournament system, which is very prevalent in the poultry industry, producers are ranked alongside other regional producers and paid based on their ranking. NCC’s brief also contains pointed quotes from poultry producers.  Here’s a sampling:

  • “Saying no one can be compensated below the average is like saying no one performs below average – which anyone knows is not true,” JoAnn Keith, Danville, Arkansas.
  • “I have been successful in this business by staying ahead of the competition. Is that not how a business should operate?” Denise Callaway, Mardela Springs, Maryland.
  • “The elimination of competition for growers is un-American,” David Thevenet, Sumter, South Carolina.

Proponents say the system rewards those who invest in their operations in ways such as improved housing and more dedicated man-hours, but opponents say it guarantees some operations will not recover their investment.

Those who have spoken out against the contracts say they have fallen victim to retaliation through low-quality feed or chickens. Speaking last week at a Capitol Hill briefing, Mike Weaver, a poultry producer and president of the Contract Poultry Growers Association of the Virginias, called himself “a living example of retaliation,” pointing out that the animals and other inputs are controlled by the company in contract with the grower, “and I have to make a good chicken out of it.”

“Before they even hatch, they know how that flock of chickens is going to do. So they want to say, ‘Well we just place them at random and we don’t retaliate against giving them bad chickens.’ That’s a lie,” Weaver said. “If they’re trying to retaliate against somebody like me, they bring them bad chickens.”

NCC denied Weaver’s claim, saying “it makes no economic sense for a company to do anything to jeopardize farmers from growing the healthiest chickens possible. Raising top quality birds produces wholesome chicken, and paychecks, for both farmers and the companies.”

At about the 13-and-a-half-minute mark of Oliver’s segment, he describes efforts to give producers the ability to speak out through rulemaking under USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration (GIPSA). Rules were proposed in 2011 that would protect producers from potential retaliation and clarify conduct that violated the rules. However, they have yet to be implemented because implementation has been blocked every year by an appropriations rider.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, said at the briefing she might demonstrate the need for these rules by giving members of Congress a bucket, typically stuffed with fried chicken, but instead containing just 30 cents, the amount of money that goes to a producer out of that bucket of chicken. She said she’s been working on fair contract rights for poultry producers for about 16 years, and she hopes this most recent splash of publicity will bring attention to the little-known plight of poultry producers.

“We have a right as free people and as a decent country to have fair treatment of those who take on this economic risk but do not have equal standing in the contracting process,” Kaptur said.

The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies is expected to mark up its appropriations bill next week.


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