Book Review

Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food

Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food

by Steve Striffler, Yale University Press, 2005

Review by Karen Davis, PhD, President of United Poultry Concerns

In Chicken, Steve Striffler, an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Arkansas, looks at the US poultry industry with a particular interest in “the Latin-American immigration into America’s heartland.” Starting in the 1980s, Latino farmworkers from Mexico, Central America, California and Texas poured into previously all-white and black regions of the south to find jobs in the poultry industry. Low living costs and steady employment were, and remain, major incentives: Unlike seasonal agriculture, poultry processing plants “operate nearly all day, every day, and require a permanent labor force” (p. 96).

To observe the life of slaughterhouse workers firsthand, Striffler worked for two summers on the “saw” lines at a Tyson plant in northwest Arkansas. The first summer he worked close to the “Church’s Line,” the following year next to the “KFC Line.” Each line, he explains, “takes a whole chicken, cuts it, marinates it, and then breads it. With twenty to twenty-five workers, each line processes about eighty birds a minute, or forty thousand pounds of chicken a day” (p. 114).

Despite workplace hardships that include recurrent machinery malfunction and repetitive motion disorders that debilitate workers, many employees view the slaughter plant favorably for providing livable wages (about $8 an hour), a degree of security and possible advancement. Moreover, as one worker told Striffler “[a]s we sat eating the chicken together” in the Tyson plant cafeteria, “Outside, we are Mexicans. . . .  We don’t belong. At least here in the plant we belong, even if we are exploited” (pp. 124-125). 

Chickens and Workers

“Their motions are so rehearsed that each [live hang] worker is able to grab two frantic chickens (one in each hand), hang them on the line, smoke a cigarette (without their hands), and heckle the new recruits as they watch in amazement.” (p. 108)

Small sympathy is shown in this book for the birds compared to concern for the workers. Striffler’s refrain for chickens is “America’s favorite food,” although in the Preface, he does describe the birds as they are being dumped off the transport trucks down a chute and into the bin where workers grab and hang them upside down on the conveyer belt, in the “nearly pitch black,” as “terrified.” To cope with the oppressiveness of the place on his first day at Tyson, Striffler says he focused his attention on a Mexican worker he calls Javier. Covered “from head to toe in protective clothing that is itself coated with blood, shit, and feathers,” Javier, he says, sits for eight hours a day “on a stool, knife in hand, and stabs the few chickens that have managed to hold onto life.” 

According to Striffler, “The chickens have already passed through the scalding hot water and have been electrocuted, a process designed to both kill the bird and begin the cleaning.” But in addition to passing harmful microbes from bird to bird, the water, he says, “doesn’t do a particularly good job of killing the chickens: one out of every twenty seems to make it through alive. The birds are in their last stages of life when they reach Javier.”

This strange account led me to contact Striffler. Was he saying that some birds actually emerge from the scald tank alive, and that the number of such birds is so high that Tyson actually pays a guy to sit on a stool and stab them to death? Instead of the scald tank (which is not electrified), was he not referring to the pre-slaughter electrified waterbath “stun” cabinet from which the live birds emerge paralyzed and semi-paralyzed to be met by a mechanical and/or manual neck-cutter? Striffler emailed me back on December 6, 2005: “My understanding is that the water contains an electrical current [and] that some birds do manage to make it through the process alive – indeed, they looked alive and were moving, and Javier was there to finish the killing process. . . . He was stabbing the chickens. . . . He was not slicing their necks.”

For verification I contacted former Tyson chicken slaughter plant worker Virgil Butler and animal scientist Temple Grandin, both of whom said it’s not possible for chickens to emerge alive from the scald tank, which is the final phase of a process that begins with live hanging, followed by immersion in cold salted electrified water (which is not intended to electrocute, i.e., kill, the birds, but to paralyze the muscles of their feather follicles so their feathers will come out more easily after they’re dead), neck-cutting, and bleed out. What does happen, however, is that many birds are still alive following the bleed-out phase (Striffler indicates one out of every twenty above), and these birds are plunged into scalding water, a fact statistically recorded each year by the US Department of Agriculture which undoubtedly underestimates the true number of what the department calls “redskins.” In an affidavit signed on January 30, 2003, Virgil Butler wrote that when chickens are scalded alive, they “flop, scream, kick, and their eyeballs pop out of their heads. They often come out of the other end with broken bones and disfigured and missing body parts because they’ve struggled so much in the tank.”  And this is after they’ve been electrically shocked, mechanically throat-sliced, and manually stabbed. 

In his Preface, which Striffler defended to me as “not [intended] to educate readers about the technical details of killing a chicken” (so it’s okay to bungle the facts?), he writes: “I do not feel sorry for Javier or the chickens. I have worked in a plant before, and stabbing chickens is a relatively easy job. Many workers would be glad to trade places. And the chickens are there to die.”

Granted, a job where you get to sit on a stool and stick, as it were, “sitting ducks” for eight hours beats most other jobs at the plant, where the majority of workers, a third of them women, are forced to stand on their feet for eight hours and perform ruinous physical labor. As for invoking the fact that the chickens are “there to die” to justify lack of pity for them, ask yourself if this logic works regarding, say, terminal cancer-ward or nursing-home patients – “I don’t feel sorry for these people; they are there to die.” 

In response to my inquiry about this, Striffler wrote back, “What I meant by that statement was that I didn’t feel sorry for the chickens at that point. . . . Sympathy seemed a little misplaced in the sense that there was nothing I could do, their death was inevitable at that point. . . . In the larger sense, I of course feel sorry for the chickens, which is why in the final chapter I advocate more humane treatment of the birds.”

Final Chapter: “Put a ‘Friendly Chicken’ in Every Pot”

The final chapter, “Toward a Friendlier Chicken,” closes with an advertisement for a company called Bay Friendly Chicken. Incorporated in 2004, this company is supported by poultry worker and environmental advocates on the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware and the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia), with the help of a grant from the US Department of Agriculture. Noting that “it is all too easy to produce ‘healthy’ organic and free-range chicken in a way that differs very little from industrial chicken,” which is “why companies such as Tyson have moved so quickly into organic chicken,” Striffler says that by contrast, a “Friendly Chicken tastes better, is healthier, and is grown and processed in a manner that actively maintains high labor and environmental standards.” The chickens, he says, “are given more space, more ventilation, more natural lighting, more frequent litter clean-out, more growing time, and more humane treatment” with less use of hormones (which in fact are not FDA-approved for use in commercially raised chickens anyway), and fewer antibiotics.

Never having visited any “Friendly Chicken” houses, I cannot confirm or refute Striffler’s vague claims about better living conditions for the birds, and he gives no clue as to how the company’s catching, transport, slaughter and culling procedures differ from standard practice. (On page 162 he describes the standard catching crew method of rounding up the “panicked birds” to crate them and truck them to slaughter.) While anything that reduces the suffering of the chickens is not negligible, the word “humane” is not applicable to animal production systems. 
A reality check to the hopeful prospect raised in the final chapter occurs in an earlier chapter which tells of a failed attempt by growers (the workers who raise chickens for the companies that own the chickens such as Tyson or, in this case, Wilson Fields) to convert commercial chicken houses to a “free-range friendly” environment for Kentucky-based Wilson Fields Farms. The growers liked the arrangement until Wilson stopped delivering feed.  Then, says one,

“The chickens started getting hungry and needed food. We couldn’t afford to feed chickens we weren’t going to sell. You get the feed on credit from the company that buys the chicks. Besides, chickens aren’t pets. We’re not feeding 25,000 chicks if we can’t sell them. This is a business. Oh, but these people from Washington [PETA] go nuts. They come down here and start picketing. They kept using this term. Damn. I can’t remember it. . . . They said we were being cruel to chickens. We’re raising them to be processed into nuggets so these people can eat them and they say we are being cruel” (p. 88).

This account gives a truer picture of the realities of chicken production than all the talk about “humane treatment.” Of the workers, Striffler writes that under the current system, they are “oddly incidental” to the food they produce (p. 71). Perhaps under another system workers will be less incidental, but this will never happen for those individuals who, until people stop eating them, are fated to be the food itself.