Consumption of poultry in the US
From Thanksgiving to Christmas and the Super Bowl, chicken and turkey are present in every American celebratory meal. Did you know that . . .
About 46 million turkeys are prepared every year with stuffing and cranberry sauce for Thanksgiving?
22 million turkeys are consumed at Christmas before the traditional yule log cake?
600 million chickens were killed for the Superbowl to satisfy cravings for wings and fried chicken?
These dishes are synonymous with comfort, leading few of us to question how these chickens and turkeys made it onto our plates. They are also becoming more popular. Sales of chicken and turkey increased by 2 per cent each in 2016!
Such statistics simply evoke animal cruelty for most of us, but we also have to consider the human costs of these numbers. Let’s start learning more about the origins of the poultry on our plate and, most importantly, the unfairness present in this seemingly mundane industry.
The big players
The American poultry industry is dominated by three big players: Tyson, Sanderson Farm, and Pilgrims.
Looking at their websites, you would be convinced they had ethical and principled relationships with their employees. How could you not be enthusiastic after reading Sanderson Farm’s mission statement, which asserts that Sanderson Farm “treats all persons with absolute respect and integrity” and Tyson’s vision affirming that they “strive to be honorable” and “operate with integrity”?
However, these companies work rather differently from what they publicly state. Beyond the lies on their internet pages is a harsh truth that many of us are unaware of.
Horrible working conditions
Working 14 hour shifts every day. Processing about 140 birds per minute. Dealing with constant exposure to mold and feces, and chemicals such as ammonia and chlorine. Being forbidden to take bathroom breaks. This is the reality of the 250 000 poultry employers working on the line of the 174 poultry factories in the US. Unfinishable days, repetitive tasks, and unsafe working conditions are the daily routine they have to endure. From these horrible conditions stem an alarming amount of injuries, the common contraction of the Carpal Tunnel Syndrome (a hand and arm condition caused by fast repetitive movements over a long period of time) and the constant fear of harsh disciplinary actions for not achieving unreachable quotas.
On top of that are the even more unlucky ones. Undocumented workers, generally from Latin America and Southeast Asia, represent three-fourths of the employees whose bosses use the persistent threat of deportation as intimidation. Discrimination is a dreadful yet omnipresent part of their routine.
I conducted an interview with Mr. Sherri Jones, a 55-year-old activist from Columbia, South Carolina, organizer of the Coalition of Poultry Workers in Mississippi, where he testifies his experience in the plants and recalls working with “abused employees.”
He states that “93% of workers in plants are female workers,” some pregnant, some extremely weak, some with life-threatening injuries. All denigrated.
He emphasized the story of one particular woman who was “forced out of the industry” after being a model employee for 23 years and who was deprived of insurance before needing a “life-altering” surgery. Even though this story specifically touched him, he specified that her case is not uncommon, and that he has witnessed unfairness similar to this every day at his work.
According to him, the biggest problem in most plants is the high speed line causing stress-related injuries such as “debilitating pain in worker’s hands, gnarled fingers, cuts and skin and respiratory problems.” And while these issues are becoming more and more known, little action is being taken. Mr. Jones explains that “we went to the White House in 2013” to bring visibility to the exploitation of poultry workers. But nothing happened.
He concluded our interview by stating that “what’s the most horrifying is the millions of dollars the industry is making” while employees are barely paid minimum wage.
A wave of indignation
Some workers are now rising up and speaking out. Iconic figures such as Basilio Castro, an ex-worker who eventually became an organizer of the Western North Carolina Workers Center, was one of the first to openly denounce the unfair treatment he suffered, representing the industry as a whole by fighting for fundamental human rights. His well known statement that “We’re not asking you to stop eating chicken, we’re simply asking to be treated as human beings and not as animals” captures the feelings of the numerous workers too afraid to fight for their rights.
In addition more institutions, like the Coalition of Poultry Workers directed by Mr. Jones and charitable organizations such as Oxfam, are tackling the issue. Its 2015 research report “Lives on the Line” depicts and denounces the ongoing abuses in poultry factories. This immersive multimedia report was extremely successful in both documenting a reality too many are unaware of and calling for actions to help improve conditions for employees within the industry. The high focus on the extremely low salaries and the unsafe working conditions horrifies the readers while also calling for a change.
We often hear that if it ain’t chicken, it’s feathers. However, understanding the ubiquity of the problem and the horrors happening every day in this industry is a start to making possible future changes
So while we sure do like our chicken and turkey, let’s always remember to ask ourselves, is it worth the human cost?
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