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Poultry Processing & Pampers

Poultry Line Workers

Oxfam America released a thorough, terribly disturbing, and beautifully crafted report last October about unjust labor practices in poultry processing. It received little attention outside of the industry. But a pared-down piece about people peeing their pants apparently works as clickbait, so that info went viral. I choose not to be despondent and frustrated, but instead encouraged that Oxfam is media-savvy enough to work the system.

Poultry processing has long been recognized as one of the most dangerous and plain awful jobs in food. I’ve been following the treatment of line workers since the Charlotte Observer published an excellent and award-winning series on the local and national industry in 2008, the same year the movie Food, Inc. was released. It may seem odd that we have, as a species, been quicker to condemn the inhumane treatment of the chickens themselves than we have the inhumane treatment of humans, but I get it. We can tell ourselves that the chickens are innocent victims and we can tell ourselves that poultry workers have a choice. But the industry does what it can to keep them from making that choice, or even talking about it, by hiring the most vulnerable people, including a high percentage of undocumented immigrants, refugees, and prisoners who have nowhere else to go.

I’m not going to dwell on the unacceptable conditions documented in the report. You can find that in a Google search. (Though I highly recommend reading the actual Oxfam America report here or, better yet, the full Lives on the Line from last year.) I would instead like to comment on the reaction to the report. While a few news outlets have used this as an opportunity to delve a little deeper, the typical response to the story stops at one of two places: don’t eat chicken or let workers take bathroom breaks.

If you are opposed to eating animals, by all means don’t. But giving up chicken because of worker abuse in the conventional food system is throwing out the breastmeat with the bathwater, or some ickier fluid. Poultry can be an excellent, affordable source of protein, and contributes enormously to food security around the world. Plus, animals are an essential part of sustainable, regenerative agriculture (more about that another time).

And yes. Of course. It should go without saying that the plant managers have to let people take bathroom breaks, but the system is the problem, not a few overzealous supervisors at Tyson or greedy owners at Purdue. The poultry industry itself thrives on a lack of accountability or transparency. For example, the speeds at which companies are allowed to force carcasses through the processing line are set based on one standard: food safety. Once the USDA was satisfied that chickens could be sliced and diced at a speed of approximately 140 chickens/minute without increasing the risk of food poisoning, the rate increase was implemented without any proof that the workers could safely endure that pace. Let me rephrase that: food safety determines the speed of processing at the expense of worker safety. If we included worker pain and injury when calculating so-called “food-borne illnesses” we’d be having massive recalls every week. Or we’d be shutting down the industry.

Workers simply are not part of the equation, even though they are the foundation of the industry, as essential to processing as the chickens themselves. If the cost of lost work due to disability, or the cost of rehabilitative health care, or even the cost of pampers and laundry were calculated in the price of the product, cheap chicken would not be so cheap. However, those costs, like the poultry industry’s massive and persistent environmental contamination, are externalized. So we get cheap chicken that costs us dearly.

The suffering of workers, poisoning of water and air, and abuse of animals from birth to death just scratch the surface of the injustices of the conventional poultry industry. Yes, get on board with Oxfam; write a letter of protest; support your local chicken farmer-processor. But a long-term solution means a comprehensive alternative to a diseased industry; one that factors in worker, animal, consumer, and ecological health in the value of the product.

(Photo from Oxfam America’s Lives on the Line)

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