Consider the costs
By Victoria Ni, Senior Attorney
I am not a vegetarian. Nor do I have plans to become one. But our Food Safety & Health Project, which tries to expose the true costs of the modern industrial food complex on animals, workers, and the environment, has gotten me to think more about eating meat. Now, especially while standing in the grocery, I think about the costs posed by industrial meat production. These days, I’m taking a second look at chicken.
Americans consume an average of more than 50 pounds of chicken per year, making it the most popular form of meat in this country. Its popularity has skyrocketed in response to mass promotion of chicken as a low-cost, healthy alternative to other forms of meat.
But how does chicken get to grocery aisles in sterilized-looking, cellophane-wrapped, mass-marketed packages?
Last month, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice released a comprehensive report on the horrific working conditions in Alabama’s poultry processing plants — part of a billion-dollar industry accounting for 10 percent of the state’s economy. (Alabama is the third largest poultry producer in the U.S.) The new report, Unsafe at These Speeds, details how the success of the poultry industry is built on the suffering of a low-wage, largely immigrant workforce forced to process more than 100 birds per minute in assembly-line fashion.
In temperatures below 40 degrees Fahrenheit, workers do grueling work hanging, deboning, cutting, trimming and packaging chickens with minimal protective clothing and amidst slicing knives, blood, bile, animal waste and chemical cleaning agents. Up to 60,000 birds may be processed by workers in a single shift. According to the report, workplace injuries are extremely common — often related to repetitive-motion injuries — yet are seldom reported because employers ignore workers’ health complaints or fire those who complain. A shocking 72 percent of the workers surveyed reported suffering from a significant work-related injury or illness, usually in silence because they’re afraid they’ll be fired for complaining and have few prospects for other jobs.
Workers risked their livelihoods to share their stories for the report. They told of being given a Tylenol and a warm water soak by the company nurse for chronic pain in their hands and wrists. Others said for serious lacerations they were given a Band-Aid and sent back to work. One worker explained that the processing line would be shut down if a bird became lodged in the machinery, but the line never even slowed for a sick or injured human.
Meanwhile, the federal government has provided little help. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the agency charged with protecting worker safety, has conducted just 20 inspections of Alabama’s poultry processing plants in the past five years. It collected a bit more than $184,000 in fines for safety violations. That’s just chicken feed compared to the $2.5 billion value of the broiler chickens produced in Alabama in a single year.
Far from providing relief to workers, the U.S. government is poised to make working conditions go from bad to worse. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has proposed to increase the maximum line speed to 175 birds per minute, up from the current maximum of 140. The agency is also proposing to decrease the number of USDA inspectors on each line and to require workers to spot and remove tainted chickens from the line. With the proposed increase in line speed, each worker or inspector would have about a third of a second to ensure the safety and quality of each bird.
Not so appetizing, is it? For more details, read the report.