Steve Striffler says he "used to eat chicken without much thought about where it came from, or how and by whom it was raised and processed." Not...

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“Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food”
by Steve Striffler
Yale University Press,
208 pp., $25

Steve Striffler says he “used to eat chicken without much thought about where it came from, or how and by whom it was raised and processed.” Not any more, not since he worked in a poultry-processing plant that dirtied his hands and seared unsanitary thoughts into his mind.

Lots of other consumers of meat besides Striffler have made such a bargain with themselves: It’s saner to avoid thinking about the processing of the beef, pork and chicken that are consumed daily. Meat-producing animals tend to be raised inhumanely and slaughtered messily by poorly paid workers vulnerable to injury. The meat is marketed by corporate behemoths and sometimes contaminated with deadly germs.

The best-selling 2001 book “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” by Eric Schlosser drove such depressing points home over and over again. Schlosser concentrated on beef. Now comes Schlosser’s successor, Striffler, who is an academic, not a journalist. But he’s a gutsy academic willing to dirty his hands, an academic who even writes well.

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“Chicken” probably will not sell as many copies as “Fast Food Nation.” It might be that readers are suffering from meat-exposé fatigue. It is so much more pleasant to eat a meal without obsessing about the negative consequences of the food on one’s plate. Nevertheless, “Chicken” ought to become a touchstone, too.

The information-gathering is superb, including the two summers Striffler performed smelly, unpleasant and sometimes dangerous work in a chicken-processing plant. The story the University of Arkansas anthropology professor tells is gripping. The book opens with a scene from a processing plant where a Mexican immigrant named Javier, transplanted to Arkansas, works while “covered from head to toe in protective clothing” coated in blood, excrement and feathers.

“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 (the electrical current passes through the water, according to an e-mail from the author). 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 20 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 work, Striffler decided what his book would be about. He would organize it around the question “How did Javier and the chickens arrive in this place, under these conditions?” Striffler organizes the book like this:

• How chicken changed from an expensive, undesirable dinner entree before World War II to a less expensive, less nutritious, wildly popular staple in the past few decades. (Hint: Reflect upon the invention and marketing of McDonald’s chicken nuggets.)

• How the poultry industry became dominated by a few gigantic vertically integrated corporations, with Arkansas-based Tyson the most cutthroat and successful. Family farmers and small businesspeople, once the foundation of the poultry industry, became near-slaves to Tyson.

• How workers in the poultry plants stopped being American locals satisfied with steady if messy work, and started being immigrants, especially from Mexico, often illegal. Tyson and other employers encouraged illegal immigrants to seek the jobs because they could be manipulated more easily than English-speaking residents of the factory towns.

• How the author obtained a job in a poultry-processing plant, and what he saw there.

Striffler suggests reforms, though he realizes none will catch on unless consumers give producers like Tyson cause to become more socially conscious and sanitary. Under the current system, Striffler says, everybody loses. He never says that he has halted his chicken consumption, but he suggests that nobody consuming chicken should be shocked if illness occurs.

As he noticed from the floor of the processing plant employing him, “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 … There has to be a better way.”

Steve Weinberg is an investigative reporter in Columbia, Mo.