Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America's Favorite Food by Steve Striffler. Yale University Press, 2005; 208 pages; $25.00.
FROM THE DUST COVER:
Anthropologist Steve Striffler begins this book in a poultry processing plant, drawing on his own experience there as a worker. He also reports on the way chickens are raised today and how they are consumed. What he discovers about America's favorite meat is not unpleasant but a powerful indictment of our industrial food system. The process of bringing chicken to our dinner table is unhealthy for all concerned -- from farmer to factory worker to consumer. The book traces the development of the poultry industry since the Second World War, analyzing the impact of such changes as the destruction of the family farm, the processing of chicken into nuggets and patties, and the changing makeup of the industrial labor force. The author describes the lives of immigrant workers and their reception in the small towns where they live. The conclusion is clear: there has to be a better way. Striffler proposes radical but practical change, a plan that promises more humane treatment of chickens, better food for the consumer, and fair payment for workers and farmers.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
An extraordinarily powerful indictment of the U.S. chicken industry. This book will do for chicken what Fast Food Nation did for beef.
-- Marion Nestle, Safe Food: Bacteria, Biotechnology, and Bioterrorism.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
University of Arkansas associate professor of anthropology Steve Striffler was born in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1967. His parents were in graduate school -- his father studying plasma physics and his mother, speech pathology -- at Ann Arbor at the time of Steve's birth. When Steve was five, his family moved to the D.C. suburbs. Striffler attended D.C. schools. His father became a professor at the University of Maryland, and his mother taught at Georgetown University. Striffler attended the University of Michigan, UCLA, and The New School for Social Research. At the latter he received his Ph.D. He has spent several summers working on the floor in chicken processing plants.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
"How did an anthropologist get interested in chickens?" "My first book was on the banana industry in South America. So I've been interested in questions of food and labor and U.S./Latin American relations for quite a while.
"I had a post-doc at Yale for a year after I got my Ph.D. When I came here for the job interview, I was struck by the poultry houses all over the landscape. I was surprised by there being so many Latin Americans here. I had a stereotypical image of this part of the world. I learned that Latin Americans in this area were working in the poultry industry. I already knew a little bit about poultry because the contracting system in poultry isn't that different from bananas. It was a natural thread: there's food, there's labor, there's U.S./Latin America issues."
"How small towns like Galax, Virginia, seemingly overnight, become populated by Latin Americans come to work in poultry fascinated me."
"It's astounding. The numbers in terms of percentages are outstanding even in major urban areas, but when you go to small-town America, four or five thousand Latin Americans can transform the region. This has happened throughout Middle America and the rural South. Some of the push-and-pull factors that made this happen are these. The push factors were definitely things going on both California and Mexico. You have an ongoing economic crisis in Mexico intensifying during the early to mid-'80s. At roughly the same time things are getting tougher on immigrants in California. Something close to a million immigrants leave California in a decade and most aren't returning to Mexico; they're coming to the U.S. South and Middle America. The South is going through a relative economic boom, a period when folks who had been doing low-wage labor in chicken- and meat-processing plants are starting to get out of those jobs and into other jobs. So there's this push out of California and Mexico. At the same time there's a growing need for low-wage labor in the U.S. South.
"Also, Central America, from which now come a growing percentage of the immigrants, is definitely a major factor. In northwest Arkansas, the immigrant population is roughly 75 percent Mexican, and most of the rest of the Latinos are Salvadoran; they're being driven out by civil wars in Central America. Many pass through California first or Texas. I did work in North Carolina, and it's heavily Guatemalan, and for reasons not unrelated to U.S. foreign policy."
"How does an immigrant, legal or illegal, who is following crops in California learn about chicken?"
"At least from some of the folks that I interview, they are always looking for something better. They would hear rumors about, 'Hey, you can go work in chicken in North Carolina or Georgia or Arkansas.' They had this image of taking care of chickens on the farm."
"Like our grandmothers did."
"Yes, exactly in that way, which is still the case in most of Latin America. This move to chickens began in the mid- to late '80s. The first few people come. In most cases, they get jobs within a week in poultry processing plants, jobs that are difficult, but compared to difficult jobs in other places, have certain advantages.
"For instance, they're more or less all year round. You can settle down. It makes the family possible in a way that it wasn't in California. They have indoor jobs year-round, and they're able to bring their wives who are able to get jobs in the poultry plants as well. You have two incomes in an area that has a cost of living a fraction of what it is in most places in California. They're buying houses, which was inconceivable in California for these folks. So it has attractions."
I asked about the professor's work in poultry packing houses.
"I got a job in two different poultry plants. I started doing interviews with workers outside the plants before I did that. The interviews were good, but they lacked richness, in part because I didn't have enough information to ask the right questions.