A Golden Chicken Nugget

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The Burt family is putting its poultry processing operation up for sale, and we should care if a buyer is found. Burt’s Hilltop Poultry is a USDA certified organic on-farm processing plant located in Winona County; it’s the only one of its kind in southeast Minnesota or western Wisconsin. For more than a decade, it has served hundreds of farmers who are selling their poultry directly to consumers and in stores. All the neatly packaged chickens sitting in my freezer right now were processed at Burt’s. Many a sustainably-raised Thanksgiving turkey passed through that facility last week. I visited the family some 11 years ago when they were just putting the finishing touches on the processing building. At the time, direct-marketed pasture-raised poultry was just starting to take off in a serious way. I’m amazed at how much has changed since then. The growth of Burt’s over the years has paralleled the skyrocketing demand for chicken and turkey that’s not produced and processed under horrific conditions. Several farmers have grown their direct-marketing poultry enterprises in-sync with Burt’s flourishing business. Pardon the pun, but what we have here is a true chicken and egg situation: we can’t have direct-marketed, sustainably-raised products like pastured chicken without local processors like Burt’s, and vice-versa. If you have any doubts as to how critical places like Burt’s Hilltop Poultry are to a safe and sane food system, then read Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food.

In northwest Arkansas, in the depths of a Tyson poultry processing plant, while laboring alongside Latinos and southeast Asians in some of the worst working conditions in America, Steve Striffler observed a surprising thing: pride in a job well done. Yes, the production line is being sped up to unsustainable levels. And yes, people who are hanging, cutting and breading poultry are sustaining lifelong injuries so severe that in some cases they can’t even hold their children at the end of a shift. But what really upsets the workers is when a floor manager takes yet one more step to remove the last bit of control over how an individual job is done.

As Striffler documents in Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food, since at least the 1950s the industry has methodically taken control of all aspects of the production, processing and even consumption of chicken.

Striffler writes: “As power within the industry has become increasingly concentrated, workers, farmers, and consumers — those with the greatest stakes in our food system — have been relegated to the margins. We have been on the outside looking in as a handful of corporate giants have transformed the basic terms under which Americans farm, work, and even eat.”

Striffler is an anthropologist at the University of Arkansas, and this book could easily have been a dry accounting of all the statistics and documented anecdotes of just how low the poultry industry has sunk. But Striffler combines firsthand experience, interviews and some riveting history with current events to make for a powerful account.

True to his word, the author describes the situation from the perspective of three groups: workers, farmers and consumers. It’s his account of how the chicken industry treats its workers that’s perhaps the strongest and most compelling. That’s mostly because Striffler himself worked in a Tyson poultry plant (when he applied, his academic background was less of a surprise to Tyson officials than the fact that he spoke English).

A discussion of the working conditions of poultry workers is timely as the U.S. grapples with the issue of immigrant labor in this country. Today, about three-quarters of the labor force in poultry plants are Latin American, with Southeast Asians and people from the Marshall Islands accounting for much of the remaining workers. A huge number — estimates run from one-fourth to one-half — of those workers are undocumented, and the industry takes full advantage of that fact. Plant managers use the threat of deportation to keep workers in line and uncomplaining about nightmarish conditions: fast line speeds, few bathroom breaks, safety violations, etc.

The U.S. Justice Department has alleged that at one time 15 Tyson Foods plants in nine states had conspired to smuggle undocumented workers across the Mexican border, “to meet production goals, cut costs, and maximize profits,” writes Striffler, adding that, “Fear of deportation produced the ideal worker.” It makes one wonder why no one in Congress or our various statehouses is vilifying the Tysons of the world with the same vigor that they target “illegals.”

Striffler’s description of the transition of poultry production as a sideline on family farms into an industrial system where contract producers serve basically as barn janitors for huge operations is also timely. Large agribusiness corporations have learned that it’s better to own the farmer than to own the farm, and the way poultry production has been taken over by contracting is seen as the model. Contracts are written to favor the integrator and, like the line workers in processing plants, take away almost all decision making from the farmers. Farmers, in turn, take on the risk of building one-use facilities.

The payoff is supposed to be protection from the vagaries of the open market, and a regular paycheck. But as Striffler documents, being a contract poultry producer can be a volatile way to earn a living. Contracts can be pulled with little notice, making those big barns expensive white elephants. As the author points out, there was never a “golden age” in chicken farming. It basically went from an afterthought on most farms to a fully integrated factory farmed enterprise controlled by Tyson, Perdue and
Holly Farms.

Finally, Striffler gets to the consumer. It’s hard to believe that before the introduction of the MacDonald’s Chicken McNugget in 1983, American’s were still consuming chickens, as, well, chickens. And by and large this was a healthy product. But over the years chicken has been breaded, marinated, and in general flavored to the point where it tastes like anything but chicken. The less chicken resembles its original state, the more unhealthy of a food product it has become, reports Striffler.

Unfortunately, Chicken loses steam toward the end when it tries to delve into solutions for what ails the poultry industry. His last chapter lays out what he thinks would make a better industry, and a better bird. He touches briefly on a new initiative called “Friendly Chicken,” based in the Chesapeake Bay area. The mission of this enterprise is to produce a healthy product that follows principles of “equity, social justice, and environmental sustainability.” All good stuff, but it’s unclear from the book how all of this is to be accomplished.

I and a growing group of concerned consumers are getting our chicken directly from farmers who have them processed at local, independent plants like Burt’s. It’s the best way to get a great tasting, healthy product that isn’t damaging lives and the land. It would be great if this kind of chicken were available to everyone, but for now it’s not. That’s too bad: it’s an empowering way of producing, processing and consuming food.

In effect, it’s putting pride back into a job well done.

And that brings us back to Burt’s Hilltop Poultry, and the key role it plays in a sustainable food system. By the way, if you’re interested in playing such a role, the Burt family will help train and coach the new owners. For more informtion, contact them at one of the following numbers: 507-932-3431, 507-202-2830 or 507-696-2332.

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