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.
"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.
"Beef and pork are more dangerous in terms of the catastrophic types of accidents that happen, in part because they're dealing with such large animals. But in terms of repetitive motion, chicken is a particularly rough industry."
"Do you think that it brutalizes people to kill like animals all day?"
"I'm not sure, but my sense is that 'No' is the short answer. When you're first brought in to the factory, you take this tour. I don't know if I mention this in the book, but about ten percent of the workers that are given that tour leave immediately. They realize when they see it it's not for them.
"In a sense it's extremely repetitive, and you're almost not thinking what the product is. Ninety-five percent of the workers, maybe even a higher percentage, never see the live bird as a whole chicken. All the labor is in further processing. Workers never see blood; we see some guts, but it's relatively sanitized."
"How did writing this book change your life?"
"I came to make connections between what we eat and the way we eat it and how it is produced, how it is processed, how it is marketed. These things are interconnected. Also, in a less academic way, what kinds of alternatives can we come up with? One of the things the book points to is the extraordinary success of the industry in terms of producing something very cheaply in extraordinary quantities.
"I don't know if this is from my experience of this book or if it's a growing trend. Before I started this book, people would bring up issues of animal rights, and I think I was maybe not entirely dismissive, but I didn't take them particularly seriously, in part because I often am frustrated with those folks in the sense that I'm more concerned with labor, with the farmers, with the people and the problems they're having. Now, I think that it's all tied up. The way we treat these animals may be indicative of the way we're treating each other."