After a lovely holiday shared with family and an equally enjoyable festive meal, I joined my mother in the kitchen for our annual dish-washing marathon. While I never find scraping bones into wastebaskets and finding room in the fridge for leftovers a particularly enjoyable task, this time has always been a good break to catch up and reflect. This year, our discussion moved to the particularly large turkey that we had ordered this year and from there to the ridiculous industry that is Thanksgiving turkey sales.
While it is hard to imagine the grotesque conditions these birds endure from cramped cages to debeaking, a little bit of web research opened my eyes to the horrors that humans involved with this industry similarly must suffer. For a truly horrifying assessment of the conditions of the average turkey worker, check out this article by Charlotte Williams on AlterNet. Desiree Evans, from the Institute for Southern Studies, shares a similarly disturbing story in her article, “The Hands Behind the Turkey.”
Nearly 46 million turkeys grace American tables at Thanksgiving and 22 million at Christmas. Each of these turkeys must be raised, slaughtered, and prepared in time for the holiday season. While the people who consume this turkey participate in an American tradition, primarily Latino, African American, Somali, Burmese and other immigrant and refugee groups work in dangerous conditions to prepare these birds. Changing demographics have created a strong immigrant labor force. For example, Evans writes that North Carolina, the second largest turkey-producing state has seen a growth in its Latino population from 76,000 in 1990 to half a million today.
Processing about 30 turkeys a minute, these workers face a number of significant hazards ranging from toxic chemical exposure to dangerous, rapidly functioning machines. These conditions can result in nerve damage, severe muscle strain, loss of appendages, skin rash, hearing problems, and many other serious work-related injuries. 100 U.S. poultry workers have died on the job during the past decade and more than 300,000 have been injured. Regulations to monitor these factories remain conflicting and inadequate. As Williams notes, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Office of Food Safety Inspection determines the maximum speed for assembly lines during the slaughtering process. The Office of Safety and Health Administration is charged with the protection of the health and safety of poultry workers. This disconnect over jurisdiction means that speed limits may be changed without proper consideration for the workers behind these lines.
While these facts represent only a small fraction of the problem, the risks that they illustrate make me shudder at what has become of our nation’s food industry. Human beings are being forced to conform to the risky mechanization of agribusiness and factory farming without proper developments in health and safety regulation. Combining this information with previous knowledge about the treatment of turkeys is certainly enough to make me consider a tofurkey next year. I think it is time to start researching treatment of soybean harvesters.