America consumes over 160 million chickens per week. That's double the amount consumer demands tallied up a year ago.
To put it into perspective, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver crunched the numbers for us — in only a way he can. He clearly demonstrated how that many "chicks" per week is unsustainable when he said: "Those are Rob Lowe at the St. Elmo's Fire premiere party numbers. Those are clean-shaven Leonardo DiCaprio on a yacht anchored outside the Cannes Film Festival numbers… that's an unmanageable amount of chicks."
When Oliver put his joking aside, we all expected to hear another soliloquy about the cruelty of commercial farming of livestock (thank God we didn't). He instead took his point to a more affective perspective: the suffering of chicken farmers. Despite the colossal production numbers farmers must meet, their incomes barely reach the poverty line — and oftentimes fall below. It turns out that the exploitation of farmers is worse of two evils when it comes to putting poultry on America's table.
The four primary companies in the chicken industry — Tyson, Pilgrim's, Sanderson Farms, and Perdue — contract farmers into a business model that not only demands chickens (that the corporations actually own, not the farmers), but also frequent equipment and infrastructure upgrades. This results in costly and unsustainable requirements that farmers must adhere to. As Oliver puts it, "you own everything that costs money, and we own everything that makes money."
The burden often leaves farmers in debt and in poor health. One farmer reported having five heart attacks last year because of stress generated by the job. Farmers are not well protected by the law from these commercial-employment contracts, either. Laws written to give farmer's rights are not enforced due to a legislative loophole that does not allow the USDA to take action in enforcing rules. Oliver suggests that consumers take time to educate themselves of unfair legislation and to speak out, because "chickenfucker accusations do not come off a Wikipedia page easily."
In the meantime, don't worry about getting your protein — commercially raised chicken isn't the only (or the best) way to go.