John Oliver vs. chicken, By Nathaniel Haas — Feathers flew when John Oliver took on the poultry industry

John Oliver vs. chicken

His segment on his HBO comedy show could help chicken farmers who feel victimized by poultry processors.

By Nathaniel Haas

6/1/15 5:24 PM EDT

Updated 6/1/15 8:10 PM EDT


Feathers flew when John Oliver took on the poultry industry — and the squawking may even end up echoing in the Capitol.

The comedic anchorman recently used his HBO show, “Last Week Tonight,” to attack the way giant poultry processors — like Tyson Foods, Perdue, Pilgrim’s and Sanderson Farms — allegedly have treated their chicken growers, punishing them for speaking out against their conditions, and pressured Congress into defanging the Agriculture Department’s protections.

“When the chicken companies describe it — again, over jangly f—-ing guitars — they make the system sound great for farmers,” Oliver said in a recent report, referring to the industry’s sunny promotional videos. But he added, “It turns out, many farmers have a very different experience.”

By Saturday — less than two weeks after the 18-minute segment aired — it drew more than 2.1 million views on YouTube.

The National Chicken Council isn’t laughing, saying in a statement that Oliver offered a “completely one-sided view of U.S. poultry production and … not an accurate reflection of the overwhelming majority of the 25,000 farm families who partner with chicken companies.” But some Democratic lawmakers hope that the publicity that Oliver’s jabs generated will have an impact beyond the farm — for instance, by jarring loose a political stalemate over USDA grower protections that Congress continues to defund. The battle is over a provision contained in appropriations bills that prevents USDA from taking steps to make sure chicken growers are treated fairly by processors.

At the very least, the industry’s next attacks on the department might meet a chillier reception in Congress, Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) said. “Last time we had a vote on it, we only lost by about six votes,” she said. “If it comes up for a vote in the committee, we’ll be more likely to prevail.”

Rep. Marcy Kaptur, an Ohio Democrat who has challenged the way the poultry industry treats its growers, also believes the HBO show could make a dent on future policy. “We’ve never had publicity like this in the 16 years I’ve been working on this issue,” she said.

The chicken council, which represents companies that produce 95 percent of the poultry consumed in the U.S., said Oliver was wrong about farmers’ experience with the industry. It pointed to a University of Delaware survey that said 75 percent of farmers were satisfied in their relationships with their chicken companies, and 73 percent were satisfied with business overall.

The poultry association didn’t mention that the survey was published 17 years ago and found that 60 percent of farmers disagreed with the statement that they were getting a fair return on their investment. More than half agreed with a statement that their poultry company would retaliate if they raised concerns. The survey was titled “Poultry Growers Speak Out!”

Council spokesman Tom Super said allegations that poultry companies retaliate against farmers are false.

“Chicken companies do not retaliate against growers for things like expressing their political views to members of Congress or the federal government,” he said in an interview.

The poultry industry isn’t the only one that has incurred Oliver’s wrath. The English comedian and his 11 writers caused the Federal Communications Commission’s website to crash after urging viewers to post comments supporting net neutrality. They also helped motivate former Attorney General Eric Holder to limit civil forfeitures after Oliver ranted about law enforcement officers abusing their powers.

The show’s poultry segment zeroed in on the Packers and Stockyards Act, a 94-year-old law that seeks to ensure that suppliers of livestock, poultry, meat, cereals, oilseeds and related products are treated fairly by processors and other buyers. The 2008 farm bill amended the law to give poultry and swine growers new rights, including the power to cancel contracts and additional protections in the contract negotiating process.

In particular, some chicken growers have had problems with the way big poultry processing and other meatpacking companies force them to compete in a tournament system, in which farmers who produce the most pounds of chicken receive bigger payments, while those who produce less are punished with reduced fees. Chris Leonard, a former Associated Press reporter, wrote about this controversial practice in his book “The Meat Racket.”

“The farmers go deeply into debt in order to get into the contract relationship with these companies, but they don’t own the chickens they are raising,” said Steve Etka, policy director for the Campaign for Contract Agriculture Reform, a coalition of groups that represent contract farmers. “They have this debt usually in excess of a million dollars that they go into, usually to mortgage the chicken farm and build the houses.”

And the farmers dare not speak out lest they face even worse treatment, Oliver’s segment advised, presenting chicken grower Mike Weaver as an illustration.

The chicken council, which represents companies that produce 95 percent of the poultry consumed in the U.S., said Oliver was wrong about farmers’ experience with the industry. | Screengrab

Weaver, a retired U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officer, told POLITICO he has been raising chickens on his 350-acre farm in Fort Seybert, West Virginia, for 15 years and maintains about 90,000 birds. Weaver, who is also president of the Contract Poultry Growers Association of the Virginias, said he was one of Pilgrim’s top growers before he spoke out in 2010 on a USDA-hosted panel about the use of the tournament system. Later, he said, Pilgrim’s supplied him with poor-quality chicks and feed.

“They do it clandestinely,” he said of the alleged retaliation. “They have ways of getting back at you that’s hard for you to prove.”

A response was not given by Pilgrim’s before press time.

The USDA’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyards Administration proposed rules in 2010 to implement the changes from the 2008 farm bill. Proponents said the rules would have made the contractor-farmer relationship fairer, while opponents said they exceeded Congress’ intentions and could hit the poultry industry with unnecessary expenses and frivolous lawsuits.

Before the ink had dried on the proposals, Congress used the fiscal 2012 agriculture appropriations bill to prevent the USDA from implementing most of the rules. Lawmakers have attached “GIPSA riders” to each agriculture appropriations bill since, sometimes reversing regulations.

Oliver referred to the poultry industry’s lobbying influence to explain why Congress got so involved in reversing the GIPSA changes. He singled out Rep. Steve Womack (R-Ark.), an Appropriations Committee member whose district is where Tyson’s world headquarters is based.

Since 2010, Womack has received $45,984 in campaign contributions from Tyson and $17,000 from the National Chicken Council’s political action committee. According to Federal Election Commission numbers analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics, 83 percent of the $302,900 that the council’s PAC doled out to federal candidates in 2014 went to Republicans.

Womack’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Then-GIPSA Director J. Dudley Butler became so frustrated that he resigned in January 2012 and resumed his work at his Farm and Ranch law firm in Mississippi.

“There is so much corporate concentration in the protein industry,” Butler told POLITICO. “They’ve got a lot of power, and they were going to fight like hell to keep from leveling the playing field.” The USDA, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, Attorney General Holder “and other people,” including President Barack Obama, “made promises and failed on those promises.”

In an open letter published in December, Butler called for Vilsack to resign. “In cowboy lingo, you will be remembered as ‘all hat and no cattle,’” Butler wrote.

The chicken council defends Congress’ move to defund GIPSA enforcement efforts, saying the agency overstepped its bounds.

“What GIPSA did under Mr. Butler, who is a trial lawyer with a history of suing poultry companies, they responded by proposing these wide-ranging and stifling rules that would have strayed so far away from the instructions in the farm bill that they threatened to upend the entire family-farming structure of our industry,” the chicken council’s Super said.

The council defends its lobbying efforts, too. “In terms of our PAC, we have one overriding goal: to assure that the needs of chicken producers are recognized and understood in Congress,” Super said. “We are not a partisan organization.”

HBO declined to respond to the industry’s criticism. Oliver doesn’t talk with the media about his previous reports, the network’s spokespeople said.

But as far as Kaptur is concerned, the battle over GIPSA isn’t done. She tried to remove the GIPSA rider during a markup of the fiscal 2015 agriculture appropriations bill and she said she will work with Pingree to try again with the 2016 spending bill.

Pingree, an organic farmer, said she hopes that the attention Oliver generated means no one will introduce another GIPSA rider. But, if they do, she’ll try to scrap it.

Both lawmakers believe Oliver’s show has given them a fighting chance of beating back the GIPSA rider.

Bill Bullard, CEO of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, agrees.

“I think it is perhaps the single best opportunity the U.S. livestock and poultry sector has had in many, many years to show how the meat packers are exploiting U.S. farmers and ranchers, and how they are capturing from them the livestock and poultry supply chains through vertical integration,” said Bullard, whose group represents close to 5,000 U.S. cattle ranchers.

But even if the next appropriations bill doesn’t include another GIPSA rider, the Agriculture Department would still be hindered from moving forward on its 2010 proposal.

USDA spokesman Cullen Schwartz explained: “We would have to start over entirely with the rule-making process, in essence, because the previous legislation rescinded and struck down a lot of what was already done. Rules that were previously proposed were halted — and, at this point, they’re years old.”

Regardless, at least one chicken farmer was pleased with the coverage Oliver’s show has provided.

“If John was here today, I’d kiss him,” Weaver said.

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