Film Club: ‘See the True Cost of Your Cheap Chicken’

“Got to walk the dog. What time do I need to pick up Andy? There’s nothing in the fridge for dinner again. Come on, just pick something. You haven’t got time to hang around. Hot dogs? No, not healthy. Lasagna? Nope, Adam won’t eat burned noodles.” [WIND CHIMES] “Wait. Of course, chicken — natural, organic, antibiotic-free. And, Mama, look at that price.” Hold on. Not so fast. “Huh? Wait. Who are you?” I’m the narrator. You think chicken’s cheap? “I never really —” Come on, let me show you the true cost of your cheap chicken. “I’m actually kind of busy.” Fantastic. Let’s go. “No, wait. I —” What I’m about to show you is very rare. It’s almost impossible to get inside one of these buildings. “Where are we?” On a farm, raising chickens for Pilgrim’s Pride, one of the biggest poultry producers in the country. “But I —” Sh-sh-sh-sh. “When I enter one of these houses, it’s like you’re entering a nuclear waste site.” This is Leah Garcés. She’s on a mission to end factory farming. She’s going to take us inside. “It’s going to smell really bad. I am not prepared for the smell, for this wall of ammonia that hits you. And it stings your eyes. You start coughing. [COUGHS] It is a sea of white. No natural light, no fresh air. It’s the most barren environment possible. All of these birds — tens of thousands of birds — are defecating, and the ammonia produces burns on their chest and on the pad of their feet. That’s a burn from the ammonia on his foot. Red, raw, bedsore-looking belly from laying on the litter like that all the time. It’s very hot to touch. You’d only go a few steps before you’d see a bird with the leg splayed out to one side or back deformed. And they have very labored breath, and you can see their eyes are glassy. There’s a really bad one up here. I don’t even want to — ugh.” If you eat cheap chicken in America today, this is almost certainly how it lives. “These are the birds that are going to supermarket, to restaurant chains, to wherever you’re eating chicken. If you’ve eaten one of these chickens, you’ve eaten an animal that had burns somewhere on their body.” These conditions are the byproduct of a system designed to maximize profits and satisfy your appetite for cheap chicken. Notice the dim light. It’s carefully regulated. More light makes the birds excited and burn more calories. Alongside decades of selective breeding, this means they now grow six times faster than a century ago, with lots of juicy breast meat. But look at this. Their small bodies struggle to support the extra weight. “Something’s wrong with her legs, and she can’t find her balance. A typical thing you will see is a flipped-over bird. So they’re on their back, wings up, and they’ve had a heart attack because their heart has been exhausted by this growth.” Yeah, chickens die before they even make it to the slaughterhouse — a lot of them — about 4,000 on this one farm alone in a six-week period, from dehydration, heart attacks and disease. That’s a mortality rate of about 5 percent, and that’s the average across the whole country. Add up every factory farm in the U.S., and you have around 450 million chickens dying every year. “They just burn millions of chickens? That doesn’t sound like a good business model.” Oh, that’s part of the reason the cheap chicken business model works so well. But to show you why, I need you to meet one of the farmers. The guy who runs this farm doesn’t want to talk. He’s scared for reasons you’ll understand in a few minutes. But this is a very typical farm. “The farm, it could be anywhere. It could be in Georgia, could be in Arkansas, could be in Alabama — anywhere where chickens are grown, in the United States, especially.” So here’s another farmer who will talk to you. “My name is Greg Kerry. I’ve been a poultry grower for 22 years now.” He runs a farm in Georgia, and he fell in love with chicken farming when he was just 7 years old. “There is a certain amount of exhilaration in getting 100,000 birds and day-old chicks and then raising them.” Greg is a hard-working American and an experienced poultry farmer. It doesn’t make sense that he’d tolerate animal suffering like this. Well, here’s the thing. He doesn’t have a choice. “You can’t control how much feed you get. You can’t control when they send it. You can’t control whether you run out of feed or not.” “Wait. If the farmers aren’t running their farms, who is?” Oh, glad you asked. The real reason all of this chicken is so cheap is because the whole process is managed by a small handful of big companies. You’ve probably heard of a few. “Tyson Chick’n Quick is today’s old-fashioned chicken.” [MUSIC PLAYING] “Gold’n Plump — good chicken is our mission.” In fact, more than half of America’s chicken is produced by just three megacompanies. “Pilgrim’s Pride.” “Sanderson Farms.” “Tyson chicken nuggets.” The birds you saw earlier, they’re owned by Pilgrim’s Pride, producer of almost one-fifth of all chicken eaten in America — chicken that has been sold and continues to be sold to places like KFC, Chick-fil-A, Walmart and, yep, your local supermarket. “You mean the farmer doesn’t even own his own chickens?” No. He’s more like a babysitter. The companies control almost everything. “They tell the farmers exactly how they want the chickens raised, what temperature to keep the houses at, the static pressure to keep the houses at, the wind speed.” “Who’s this?” Oh, this is Tyler Whitley. He spent four years answering calls from poultry farmers like Greg on a crisis hotline. He knows this system inside out. “The farmers don’t have independent control over how the chickens are raised.” “The farmers can’t even decide how much light to give, how many chickens to put in. They can’t give the birds windows if they want to.” There’s almost nothing farmers like Greg can do to improve the lives of his flock. “I don’t get it. How does treating these farmers so badly make my chicken cheap?” Well, the industry invented a genius scheme that squeezes every last drop of ruthless efficiency out of both chicken and farmer. Companies only pay the farmer for the chickens that make it to the slaughterhouse. And the ones that don’t, well, they’re just collateral damage in the name of maximizing profits. This farmer is incinerating his own income, and that’s not the only burden offloaded onto him. See this multimillion-dollar farm? Guess who took out the loan to pay for it. The farmer. Upgrading this equipment — guess who had to pay for that. The farmer. And when footage like this finds its way into the world, guess who gets punished. “Yeah, OK, I get it. But if I were him, I wouldn’t stand for this.” Like I said, they have no choice. “They cannot get out of the contracts because they have taken out enormous loans, which are tied to the land, tied to their property, and require them to keep growing chickens in order to pay off this loan. So if they stop growing chickens, they lose everything.” And so America’s poultry farmers, they’re trapped in this cruel system. That’s why the guy who runs this farm wouldn’t speak on camera. He’s got a lot to lose. The industry, meanwhile, works hard to make sure you never see pictures like this. They’ve gone as far as to make filming on commercial farms a crime in some states. Think how much of a powerful lobby you need to make that happen. “What do you want me to do — stop eating chicken? Come on, can’t we fix this broken system?” “It’s not broken. It’s working how it’s supposed to, and it’s working extremely well. Extremely well.” Here are some poultry farmers begging for legislation 12 years ago. “John, we need you all’s help. We need the rules passed, but we need you to be watchdogs for us as farmers.” “But we really need these rules, and we need them quick.” But no help ever came. By investing their huge profits into lobbying, the companies keep an iron grip on the status quo. To get you your dinner, both the chicken and farmer have lost their freedom and their dignity. “So today’s industrial chicken farmers, their job is to walk through their house one to two times a day and find sick, dead or dying chickens and hand kill them. It’s called cervical dislocation, and they pull the legs and the neck, and they kill them.” The inevitable byproduct of a system that puts profits over dignity for people and animals. “There’s a slow progression of humiliations and indignities that these farmers go through that actually robs them of their humanity.” “Regardless of how tough you think you are inside mentally and physically, you eventually just get worn down.” Last year, the poultry company that controlled Greg’s livelihood terminated his contract. He’s left in debt, with no other way to make money from chickens. “Just Bare all-natural chickens.” “All natural.” “‘Natural’ literally means nothing. Nothing.” There’s nothing natural about your cheap chicken. While a few companies are proving it’s possible to produce humane, affordable chicken, the overall industry still condemns billions of chickens to short, miserable lives bred to their biological limits. They trap thousands of farmers into exploitative relationships, burdened by debt, devoid of agency, and they spin a story to the rest of us that what we feed ourselves and our families is natural. And guess what. The poultry industry is making billions from it. “All right. OK. Enough. I get it. I want to feed my kids organic chicken that’s been raised in good conditions, not these Franken-birds, and I want it from a farmer who leads a dignified life. Is that really going to cost much more?” Leah? “In order for both the chicken and the farmer to have a more dignified life, chicken should be closer to $6 a pound, not $1 a pound.” “I guess it’s lasagna after all.” [MUSIC PLAYING]

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