WASHINGTON – The Department of Agriculture may be able to protect chicken farmers from industry retaliations in 2016, and satirical news anchor John Oliver may be part of the reason.
It passed without any amendments that might prohibit the U.S. Department of Agriculture from punishing meatpacking companies if they use deceptive practices against contract livestock and poultry farmers.
Part of the credit goes to the host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” some members of Congress said.
On his show last month, the comedian criticized contracts that poultry producers, including Tyson Foods, Sanderson Farms, and Perdue, have their chicken farmers sign.
“Jangly guitars make anything sound more plausible,” Oliver said of Tyson promotional video designed to encourage people to go into chicken farming. “Typically, farmers go into a great deal of debt just to build chicken houses and go into the business.”
These contract farms take out loans to build facilities, buy equipment and chicken feed – usually from the meat processing companies. The farmers are paid to raise the chickens, but they don’t get to sell them. The company owns the animals. Some farmers say they don’t make enough money in this system, but are usually in so much debt they can’t leave it.
The companies also force farmers to compete with each other. Lower-performing farms get less money.
When farmers attempted to speak out about their conditions, they suffered retaliation from chicken companies. Sometimes it was in the form of getting lower quality chickens to raise. When animals die, farmers are forced to pay.
Attempts to reach the National Chicken Council by phone were unsuccessful, but the council responded to Oliver’s segment by saying it “presents a completely one-sided view of U.S. poultry production and is not an accurate reflection of the overwhelming majority of the 25,000 farm families who partner with chicken companies.”
But Oliver also took a jab at members of Congress, who he said, have “fought efforts to protect chicken farmers” by adding riders to appropriations bills.
He told viewers that anyone on the House Appropriations Committee who votes against an amendment giving USDA power to protect farmers was a “chicken f—–.” Oliver said this while flashing images of each of the committee members with their states and party affiliations.
The clip has gotten nearly 3 million views on You Tube.
“There has been a lot of information circulated about the issue. I don’t think it hurt that there was a viral video about it,” said Chellie Pingree, D-Maine, a subcommittee member who tried to keep those amendments out of last year’s bill.
The bill still has to go through a full committee hearing next week and pass both the House and Senate, but Pingree said, “This is the closest we’ve come to winning the fight.”
The USDA approved rules to protect farmers in 2010, but amendments to appropriations bills prevented the department from using any money to enforce those rules.
The Grain Inspection Packers and Stockyards Administration rider was the most recent provision that prevented USDA from enforcing guidelines in the meatpacking industry. The administration is part of USDA.
Although the bill was written without any amendments, Pingree said it was still possible that one might be proposed next week when the bill goes to the House Committee on Appropriations.
“I urge my colleagues to build on the subcommittee’s leadership today in support of these basic rights,” Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, said. She’s a member of the full committee and tried to get the the stockyards rider removed from the last year’s agriculture bill.
Oliver praised Kaptur on his show for trying to pass an amendment in 2014 that would allow the USDA to enforce its rules.
Pingree said she was skeptical that members might try to add an amendment later, but she said she was glad it isn’t in the bill for now.
“We wouldn’t be this close if it weren’t for the perseverance of congresswoman Kaptur, and of course the power of John Oliver,” Pingree said.
Reach Jonathan A Capriel at [email protected] or 202-408-1489. SHFWire stories are free to any news organization that gives the reporter a byline and credits the SHFWire. Like the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire interns onFacebookand follow us on Twitter.