"I was interviewing workers and they said, 'The best way to learn about it is to work in a plant.' It seems obvious now, but of course it didn't occur to me, I have to admit, until they said it. I went and got the job.
"There is something to be said for doing the work and experiencing what it means to be one person who must do the job of two people, for instance, which I recounted in the book. All these things that people talk about you do not understand on some level until you do it yourself.
"I think Americans almost can't even imagine these places. There's this sense of this far-off, horrible place where you have poor immigrant people doing this work that we can't even envision. There's some truth to that. I'm not saying that that's not part of the story. But there's also a part of the story where you have people that are extremely proud of their jobs, people who work very hard. I think that's part of the point also -- to see these workers not as exotic people that we should pity, but as real people."
"People my age and older at least have memories of eating chicken fresh from the farm. These people comment on how different chicken tasted then. Many of my generation and generations older than mine have never tasted Chicken McNuggets, for instance."
"I think you're right. As I point out in the book, there is a group -- folks under 30 -- who find it difficult to imagine chicken in another form besides the McNugget, or a strip or a buffalo wing or something like that.
"As for fresh chicken, if you've traveled outside the U.S., particularly in the third world, chicken is tougher and stringier, but it also has flavor, unlike our chicken. When major poultry companies were trying to open markets in India, they had little luck. In India they like to see the chicken alive before they buy it, and that's a problem. The other problem was they would eat the chicken and they'd say, 'This is the blandest stuff we've ever had.'"
"How can a person guarantee that a chicken ranges freely and is dealt with in a properly clean way after its death?"
"In some ways the answer is, 'You don't.' That's one of the problems of our system in terms of having a rigorous system of labeling that gives the consumer a history of the product that they're eating. In the case of meat, you have to trust the company that you're purchasing it from. I think at this point it's largely a matter of trust. There isn't a system in place where things are monitored in a significant way."
"What chicken do you and your wife eat?"
"We don't have a lot of options. Tyson dominates the market in this area. Some supermarkets in this area sell what is called Smart Chicken. Sometimes we buy chicken from a store that sells organic chicken, but the thing I like about Smart Chicken is that it's within the price range of normal chicken. It's more expensive, but it's not four or five times more expensive. Essentially the difference between Smart Chicken and other brands is, as I mention in the book, that it's air-chilled as opposed to water-chilled."
"I think people have no idea how filthy the waste is from most chicken plants."
The degree of pollution, said the professor, "should become part of the history of the chicken in terms of where it came from, what it was fed, under what conditions it was raised, under what conditions workers worked, but also the environmental effect should be given. What's the history of the plant from where the chicken came? How much waste is being dumped into rivers, into these waste lagoons that are supposed to be treated? The system for monitoring this is extremely weak as is the system for enforcing it, which is exceptionally weak in the sense that the fines aren't even sufficient to make companies change their behavior. In many cases, companies find it less expensive to continue polluting, racking up the fines, paying them, and then getting government subsidies in other ways."
"Does chicken get a lot of government subsidies?"
"They receive subsidies through federal school programs to purchase food. All meat-raising is subsidized in the sense that the production of corn is highly subsidized, and that's a major source of feed. Industrial agriculture, in general, is well-subsidized by the government.
"How do we harness the chicken and transform it into something that at least potentially is beneficial instead of being now increasingly harmful? That's the irony the book hinges on in many ways: something that emerges as a relatively cheap and healthy source of animal protein becomes over several decades unhealthy in so many different ways.
"The food industry as a whole is in trouble. We don't have a good sense of what we're putting into our bodies, and we don't know the long-term effects of some of these additives and chemicals.
"Part of the chicken's success is that it's almost infinitely flexible. Compared to red meat and pork, you can slice chicken and dice it into virtually any shape. It's particularly good at absorbing injections that make it taste different."
Professor Striffler's job at the plant was breading chicken parts that were partially cooked so that a restaurant could "quickly dump the meat into the deep fryer and heat it up."
"How did you feel when you would come home from work?"
"It was exhausting. I had everything going for me. I went in there physically quite healthy, didn't have a family I had to take care of, but I still was bone-tired. It makes it hard to have a normal life in any way. I also would wake up in the middle of the night, and it would feel like my hands were going to explode, like they were bloated. That was of course from clenching these bags of breading all day long. So it certainly takes a toll on your body. People that do the same job, particularly in the plant and particularly the most repetitive jobs, you don't do those jobs without developing some repetitive injury.