Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food

Haven't read it yet, but looks interesting.


Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food by Steve Striffler

From inside the chicken factory, a report on the real cost of chicken for farmers, workers, and consumers.

Anthropologist Steve Striffler begins this book in a poultry processing plant, drawing on his own experiences 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 just unpleasant but a powerful indictment of our industrial food system. The process of bringing chicken to our dinner tables 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 food workers and farmers.

STEVE STRIFFLER is associate professor of anthropology, University of Arkansas. Excerpt from the Book:

It is my first day of work in one of the largest poultry-processing plants in the world. I am given “the tour” that all new workers receive. We begin in live hanging. Hundreds of live chickens flood off the trucks, down a chute, and into a bin where workers quickly hang them by their feet onto the production line. It’s surreal. It is nearly pitch black, on the theory that the darkness soothes the terrified birds. The smell and look of the place are oppressive, so I look for something to focus on other than the hanging itself. A worker. I eventually learn that Javier is from Mexico , but the figure is hard to make out at first. He is covered from head to toe in protective clothing that is itself coated with blood, shit, and feathers. Javier’s job is simple, if somewhat gruesome. The chickens have already passed through scalding hot water and have been electrocuted, a process designed to both kill the bird and begin the cleaning. Neither task is accomplished perfectly. The communal baths, popularly known as fecal soups, do clean, but they also pass harmful microbes from one bird to the next. The bath also 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. For eight hours a day he sits on a stool, knife in hand, and stabs the few chickens that have managed to hold onto life.

While watching Javier, I realize what this book will be about. How did Javier and the chickens arrive in this place, under these conditions? Where do they go once they leave the plant? And what does their experience in the plant mean to those of us who eat chicken? The search for answers led me to study a period when chickens were raised and processed quite differently, and to visit poultry farms, supermarkets, restaurants, and communities in the southern United States and central Mexico . As I learned while doing this research, whereas the chicken’s journey is one characterized by uniformity and predictability, the worker’s path is defined by variation, insecurity, and chaos. Neither experience leads to a particularly healthy outcome for bird, worker, farmer, environment, or consumer.

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. I knew this going in. The problem, which became more transparent as I passed by “evisceration,” the “KFC line,” and the “wing room,” was that no one departed from the plant in particularly good shape. The workers left poor, exhausted, and, in many cases, seriously injured. The chickens not only exited the plant dead, but in a “further-processed” form that was not particularly healthy for consumers. In short, the postwar promise of the industrial chicken—as a healthy, plentiful alternative to beef—has been lost for all of the people involved in its raising, processing, and consumption. There has to be a better way.


"Striffler presents the first in-depth look at the rise of the chicken industry in late twentieth-century America. The story is vivid, engaging, and—in chapters dealing with Mexican and other immigrant chickenworkers—riveting."—Deborah Fitzgerald, author of Every Farm a Factory

“A gripping and deeply sobering view of ‘big chicken’ from the bottom up. Striffler’s experience on the (dis)assembly line, his sympathetic grasp of the hopes, dreams, and origins of the workforce, and of the larger history of the industry, make for a uniquely powerful and memorable book.”—James C. Scott, Yale University

"Modern chicken production and consumption is embedded in a fascinating web of political, economic, social, and even psychological factors that need to be described, understood, and questioned. Steve Striffler, combining scholarly analysis with his remarkable brand of participatory research, has produced a masterful book, one I will recommend widely."—Kelly Brownell, Yale University

"With gripping prose and clear analysis, Striffler's Chicken brings workers, growers, consumers, as well as bird together around one big, unhappy table. His treatment of Mexican immigrant workers at Tyson's, inparticular, is a model of modern-day ethnography."—Leon Fink, editor of Labor: Working-Class History of the Americas

"Extraordinarily powerful. . . . This book will do for chicken what Fast Food Nation did for beef." — Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health

“[A] fast-paced narrative, rich with personal detail.”—Publishers Weekly


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