Buying Poultry: Consider the Chickens AND the Workers


It’s a healthy choice to eat chicken, right? Chicken is low in fat, packed with protein, and tastes like everything. Move beyond these basics, however, and it becomes more complicated.

Many of us have heard about the negative impacts of the poultry industry: environmental deterioration, animal welfare issues, farmer exploitation, misuse of antibiotics and so on. Despite these ethical and economic problems, and because of the rising cost of beef and a raised consciousness about beef’s environmental and human health impacts, chicken has become the most consumed meat in the U.S.

Perhaps in making this switch we bow to a certain zeitgeist of choosing the “lesser of two evils” However, there’s more to the story: a new report from Oxfam America explores working conditions inside poultry processing plants.

usda_poultry_slaughter.jpgWellness Warrior has reported earlier studies showing food safety issues in slaughterhouses  (2.33 birds are inspected per second—hardly a “safe” speed!) but even those reports focused on the animal itself. The new Oxfam report, entitled "Lives on the Line: The High Human Cost of Chicken," uses USDA data, news reports, interviews and investigation to show that laborers in the poultry processing plants are exposed to terribly uncomfortable conditions, repetitive stress injuries, and a culture of fear. Christopher Cook of Salon, in a synopsis, has a laundry list of the report’s findings:

This toll includes tens of thousands of workers maimed on the job each year, crippling bodies and livelihoods; billions of dollars in federal contracts to Tyson Foods and others, despite their long record of worker mistreatment and safety violations; and massive public expense for workers’ emergency room visits and ongoing healthcare needs. (While there is no specific breakdown for the poultry industry, the National Safety Council estimates all workplace injuries and fatalities cost taxpayers $198 billion in 2012.)"

The report itself is presented in an intriguing, high-tech, impactful multimedia format that allows the reader to activate videos, hear interviews and learn the personal stories of some of the interviewees. Check out the website here.

Pointing out additional worker injustices, Oxfam does not mince words in its criticism of the economic disparities between segments of the industrial poultry workforce:

The industry squeezes profits and productivity out of these workers. For every dollar spent on McDonald’s McNuggets, only about two cents goes to processing workers. Those workers hang, cut, trim, bread, freeze, and package those chickens—and they get 2 percent of the sale price."

In short, the industrial poultry system provides cheap protein because it exploits its laborers.

What can consumers do? On a personal level, start by buying only local, seasonal, organic chicken. When we know our farmers, we are that much closer to knowing the origins of our food. The chances are that these farmers are using local slaughterhouses. Their smaller scale operations may be much more humane and careful when they are not part of the fully integrated industrial chicken production model. Local farmers are also much more likely to use small-scale community-based services like mobile poultry slaughter providers.

Unfortunately, the choice of perusing the farmer’s market and paying a big premium for sustainable, small-scale-farm meat does not exist for many in our country.  As our awareness and concern about food workers rights continues to grow in this country there is no doubt that we will continue to learn about the labor conditions that create the cheap food we’ve come to know and love.

Oxfam simply asks consumers to hold the poultry industry accountable. The report offers three clear demands:

Big Poultry should improve conditions for workers, by:

  • providing a safe environment in plants

  • ensuring that workers have the freedom to speak out about problems in the workplace

  • compensating workers fairly

Consumers have already pushed Big Poultry to change: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s, and Perdue have all recently pledged to phase out the use of antibiotics from their chicken supply chains. People spoke and they listened. They’ll listen again.

Lives on the Line paints a pretty bleak picture but also suggests that there is a lot of room for positive change.

PHOTO via Flicker user USDAgov




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