Blood, Sweat, and Supper

One week on the evisceration line

The carcasses sway gently in their shackles. From a distance, the turkeys seem to move slowly, an optical illusion like watching fence posts from your car window. Up close they roll past quickly. Each bird enters my field of vision and leaves it again in the space of about two seconds. The birds are just a few minutes dead. Their bodies are still hot.

My job is to cut the oil glands out of the tail of every other bird. On my left hand I wear a knit glove, a rubber glove, and a steel-mesh glove. In my right hand I hold a tool called a whizzard, a pneumatic knife with a spinning circular blade. A small wart on the top of each bird's tail indicates where the glands are. If I cut too deep, I hit a bone and waste meat. If I cut too shallow, I sever the glands and a thick grease the color of French's mustard drips out.

Trimming oil glands is one of the simpler stations on the assembly line. It takes me about 20 minutes to get the hang of it and come up to speed. An hour and 2,000 turkeys later, I stand in a small pile of warm oil glands, small cylinders about the size of film canisters. A man with a shovel scrapes them away into the waste system. After he does, my feet feel suddenly cool.

The first Thanksgiving is said to have been celebrated after the harvest of 1621 in the New England colonies. Whether turkey was actually served is a matter of historical debate. If it was, the bird would have been a wild one, shot and dressed for the celebration.

Abraham Lincoln declared Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1864. Today, the National Turkey Federation informs us, 34 percent of all turkey consumed in the nation is eaten during the holidays. On Thanksgiving Day alone, Americans consume about 675 million pounds of turkey, or roughly 45 million birds. Add that to the turkey we eat December through October and you get some 20 pounds eaten each year for every man, woman, and child in the nation.

Many of these turkeys are raised and slaughtered in Minnesota, the second-largest producer of turkeys in the country. We used to be number one, but North Carolina has displaced us. Some 44 million birds were raised here in the past year, and most of them were processed in one of the 10 turkey factories scattered around the state. Jerome Foods in Faribault, where I spent last week, is one of the largest. About 200 tons of turkey are processed here every day.

For the record, none of the birds I worked on will end up on your Thanksgiving table, unless you plan to make the centerpiece of your meal one of Jerome's "Turkey Store" products like Lean Ground Turkey Meat, Seasoned Lean Burger Patties, Breast Cutlets, Breast Slices, Hot Lean Italian Sausage, Mexican Seasoned Lean Sausage with Jalapeño Cheese, Apple Cinnamon Breakfast Links, or Teriyaki Seasoned Breast Cuts. Jerome Foods specializes in "value-added" products only.

The morning shift begins at 5 a.m., when the turkeys come in on specially designed trailer trucks. Workers hang the live birds by their feet in shackles. This is one of the most difficult and messy jobs in the plant, and it pays about $11 an hour. Most everybody else earns $7.20 an hour.

Once hung, the turkeys are stunned with an electric current. U.S. law requires that the birds be unconscious when they run through the machine that cuts their throats. They then go into a tank of scalding water, and from there into a machine with rubber fingers that removes their feathers. Workers in the evisceration department--known in the factory as "Evis"--hang them by the neck on another set of shackles. After that, their guts are removed. The boning department reduces them to component parts--breast, thigh, wings, etc. Anything left over is ground up. A plant in Barron, Wisconsin, does the cooking and packaging.

As on any other factory line, the work at Jerome is broken down into hundreds of small tasks, like removing oil glands. Other tasks include: trimming skin off necks, scooping out innards, picking pin-feathers off the wings, suctioning out lungs with a vacuum, and, using thumb and forefinger, manually emptying each turkey's bowels. Very few of the jobs are mechanized. All of them are dangerous, carrying the risk of repetitive-motion injury. All are messy.

I spend most of my first day spraying dead turkeys with a high-pressure water spray. I settle into a routine fairly quickly: spray the neck (distended nearly a foot from hanging), the back, under each wing, and through the hole at the base of the neck. Then I lift each turkey by the left leg and force my spray into its anus.

It isn't until I reach for a leg and find it missing that I realize I'm handling the rejects from the main line. My birds are bruised. They have sores and blisters. Wings and legs are broken or missing. For a while I look into their faces. Their lids are clouded over, faces bruised. Tongues poke out on some of them. Beaks drip blood.

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