You got to know your chicken.
Food Issues Book Club - The Ethics of What We Eat, Chapter 2

Hello all!  Welcome to the NOiG Food Issues Book Club, wherein I read books about food stuff, summarize each book by chapter, and then attempt to apply that book chapter's ideas to the New Orleans food environment and my own experiences.  Fun right?!  Check out previous installations here.  I'd love it if you'd read along and join in!  And now, without further ado...

The Ethics of What We Eat, Chapter 2: The Hidden Costs of Cheap Chicken

Dear Mr. Singer and Mr. Mason,

I hope this letter finds you well.  I write again, this time with regard to the second chapter of The Ethics of What We Eat entitled The Hidden Costs of Cheap Chicken.

Decades ago, presidents made promises of "a chicken in every pot."  If only they could see us now, eh?  In 2014, the US alone slaughtered approximately 8,522,427,000 chickens (8.5 billion, shall we say).  Per this chapter, one company by itself - Tyson - is responsible for about a quarter of them.  Assuming a US population of 318.9 million, that's... 26 chickens per person?  Wow.  Just think of it!  In one year we killed 26 chickens for every single human living in this country.  Enough for each of us to consume an entire chicken, beak to tail, every two weeks all year long.  Fascinating.

Given the sheer numbers involved, I shouldn't be surprised at the methods that are used to create, rear, and kill chickens and other poultry in the US.  And yet I am, every single time I review them.  8 BILLION for heck's sake!  If we're killing that many chickens, could it possibly be wrong?  Well of course it could.  If we killed 8 billion dogs a year for food, people would be rioting in the streets.

"But dogs are so much smarter than chickens - they're our pets," people are oh-so-likely to say.  And whether or not that point is true or valid, I very much appreciate that early on in the chapter you note that the intelligence of chickens is not really the issue when considering how we treat them.  "[T]he point of real ethical significance is not how clever chickens are, but whether they can suffer."  And suffer they do - that's made abundantly clear in this chapter.

Practices such as using cages that give animals less than 80 square inches in which to move, that prevent them from engaging in any instinctual behaviors, that leave them "in chronic pain for the last 20 percent of their lives," that sometimes even leave some to starve to death, undoubtedly cause chickens to suffer.  One must wonder if those who would claim otherwise have ulterior motive$.  Greed in the food industry?  Never.

You touched on, but did not really explore, the impact that these practices have on the workers who carry them out.  There is a tendency in the vegan and AR communities to villainize these people, and that's understandable.  Abuse is carried out at their hands.  But their behavior does not exist in a vacuum - in fact it exists in hell.  Consider, for instance, the desperate situation in which chicken growers find themselves after investing tens of thousands of dollars in what they have been promised will be a viable career.  Carole Morrison, a chicken grower featured in the movie Food, Inc., describes this predicament in poignant and personal terms.  (Viewer warning: this video shows sick and deceased animals and other disturbing images.)

"This is mass production like on an assembly line" says Ms. Morrison.  After explaining the antibiotics given to chickens, she states that "I have become allergic to all antibiotics and can't take them."  She concludes the segment stating that "[t]o have no say in your business... it's degrading.  It's like being a slave to the company."  All that for $18k a year.

As to slaughterhouse workers, I can only imagine what slaughtering 80,000 chickens per day, every day, for weeks and months on end can do to the human psyche.  Under those conditions - which are well documented to be terribly unsafe for workers - there is no option but to become desensitized to the animals in whose blood they are constantly covered.

For these reasons, I wish in this chapter that you had spoken more of the plight of workers.  Rampant labor abuses in industrial food is a major component of my ethical stance against it.  Worker pay, which is discussed, is certainly a pressing issue.  I'd argue though that injuries (frequently caused by ever-increasing poultry line speeds), deaths, sexual assaults, enormous mental health impacts, and deportations are even more pressing.

In your own description of working as turkey inseminators, you stated that "[i]t was the hardest, fastest, dirtiest, most disgusting, worst-paid work we have ever done... Through all that we received a torrent of verbal abuse from the foreman and others on the crew. We lasted one day."  Imagine doing that for years, depending on that pay to support your family.  What kind of person would you become?

I do appreciate the shoutout to the incredible environmental damage done by poultry operations.  As a Gulf Coast resident and a student of ecology (not to mention someone whose tap water is pulled from the Mississippi River), I am all too aware of our ever-growing "dead zone."  Somehow, though, you failed to mention the factor that is environmental racism.  Oh and hey, shouldn't we talk about the poultry belt a.k.a. let's get poor black and then brown folks to do some of the worst work in existence for terrible pay?  Intersections y'all.  Intersections.

But, I suppose, all books cannot be all things. 

In closing, I'd like to say thank you for consistently referring to corporations as "it" rather than "they."  Citizens United can shove it.

Melissa Bastian Breedlove

P.S. - You may be amused to know that the phrase "the maximum number of birds per hand is five" has inspired me to want a new tattoo.  If I get it, I'll send you pictures!

P.P.S. - These billboards may literally make my head explode one day.

Tender.  Loving.  Yep, that's definitely what poultry work brings to mind...

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