Monday, May 25, 2015

Chicken Farmers Get Screwed and Can't Even Complain

In 1984 I decided to stop eating pork, lamb, and beef. I meant to work my way along to vegetarianism soon afterward, but it never happened.

My reasons for the first decision and the second lack-of-decision were both based on the resources n needed to create consumable calories, rather than from an animal rights perspective. The land, water, and feed needed to raise large mammals for food is pretty far out of whack compared to just eating plants. The resources needed to raise birds and catch or raise fish, on the other hand, are much less than for large mammals, though they are still more than for growing plants.

So I subconsciously used that fact as a reason to excuse me and my busy life from ever seriously pursuing vegetarianism.

Differentiating between the levels of resource use does has some validity. But I’ve known all along that the commercial poultry industry was not something I wanted to support. I try to buy eggs, chicken, and turkey from farms that I know treat their birds better than corporate agribusiness does, and (I hope) also treat the people who process the meat better as well.

I'm very aware of the inhumane working conditions for the people who process poultry (a euphemism for killing the birds, removing their feathers and organs, cutting up their bodies, and packaging them for sale). Repetitive stress injury particularly comes to mind. The pay is not very good for the difficulty and strain of the labor, which means undocumented workers make up most of the pool of labor available. And all this so we can have cheap food.

But there’s one part of the corporate poultry business I wasn’t aware of until a few days ago when I watched this segment from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver:

The gist of it is that some time over the past few decades, the farmers who raise chickens for Tyson, Purdue, and the other big four or five poultry corporations have been turned into sharecroppers.

The farmers are “independent” and own the barns and equipment. They provide the labor or pay hired hands to help them. But the chickens and the feed are owned by the corporation. The farmers have to sign contracts that require them to follow whatever current science (or fad) the corporation has decided on this year — requiring costly changes to infrastructure on a regular basis. The contracts tell the farmers how to raise the birds, such as limiting their access to the outdoors or even their amount of movement. (Birds that sit still get fatter faster.) As Oliver put it, “Chickens are like reality stars: the happier they are, the less money they're worth.”

The contracts also prohibit the farmers from speaking about the contracts or criticizing the corporations.

The farmers are paid in a competitive system where they are compared to other farmers under contract to the corporation. If the quality of your birds is in the top 50 percent of all the birds produced, you get a bonus. If they aren’t, you get penalized.

But the corporation decides which chicks you got in the first place. They’re ranked from 1 to 10. Farmers who try to fight back get a lot of birds rated 8, 9, or 10, which makes it hard to earn a living. It's not uncommon for these poultry farmers to live at the poverty level, which is ridiculous.

What they need is to organize, but their contracts prohibit that since they aren’t even allowed to talk about what they have in common.

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo) has introduced an amendment in Congress to remove those restrictions on the farmers’ speech. It’s something the House Agriculture Committee could pass and bring to the floor. But it hasn’t.

My representative, Betty McCollum, sits on that committee. I’ll be calling her to find out how she has voted on Kaptur’s amendment and what can be done.

And I’ll be working a bit harder to eat only plants unless I know exactly where the animals I eat come from.


Nancy/BLissed-Out Grandma said...

Damn. There is just more bad news about the food industry everywhere you look. Let us know what Betty McCollum has to say on the subject.

Unemployed Dragon said...

Oh boy...I eat a lot of chicken, because of similar environmental concerns...but this, I did not know about. I may need to cut the chicken out. I love pork, but I'm learning more about the impact on the environment of pork production so that is going to have to go too. What am I gonna eat?