Blood, Sweat, and Supper

One week on the evisceration line

Cannibalism is another problem that plagues turkey farmers. According to one trade journal, the source is often too much light. "Feather follicles and feet of young birds often shine under bright light which attracts the attention of others. Being inquisitive, birds pick on feet or feather follicles resulting in drawing blood. Once blood is drawn this will attract more and more birds until the victim is dead." Alternately, cannibalism may start when hens lay eggs and bleed. "The presence of blood and possibly the taste of it leads to rapid spread of the vice."

On the farm, and on the truck to the factory, birds can become bruised. Fresh bruises are red, and can be quite severe. Older bruises look green. Turkeys also suffer scratches and lesions, torn skin, and broken legs and wings. These parts are trimmed and sold to rendering companies along with the heads, feathers, inedible guts, and any parts that fall on the floor during processing. The rendering companies turn these waste products into food for mink, and for cats and dogs.

At the factory, some birds remain conscious after they are electrocuted. Sometimes the sentient birds lift up their heads and miss the cutting knife. Then they go into the scalding tank alive. According to congressional testimony, British studies have found that "hundreds of millions of birds per year go into the scald tank alive and conscious and breathing." Instead of bleeding out yellow like the rest of the birds, the skin of these turkeys turns a fiery red.

On the line, foreign objects can fall into the product. A list of complaints from Jerome customers includes people finding glass, bone, insects, hair, gum, and paper in their turkey.

Aside from hanging live birds, the three-point station is generally regarded as the hardest work in Evis. But for my money, the transfer table is harder. Here, fresh-killed turkeys slide through the leg-cutting machine onto a conveyor belt, from which they must be picked up and hung on shackles.

A man demonstrates the technique for me. With your right hand, grab an empty shackle as it swings around from the right. With your left, lift the bird by the neck. Slide your thumb to the open wound where his throat was cut, put your left forefinger on his head, and slip it through the V-shaped bars at the center of the shackle.

The job looks effortless, and at first I don't do that badly. But after a while, my left hand begins to ache. The birds come so quickly I can't keep up. Sometimes an extra bird comes by and falls into a wire basket at the end of the conveyor belt. Fresh blood splashes me. I push up my safety glasses and miss a bird. I get the wrong turkey hooked up to the shackle.

Turkey processing requires more attention that other types of factory work. If you run bolts into a machine for eight hours, at least the bolts remain the same size. Birds, even factory-raised, exhibit no such uniformity. One has a large neck with bloated wattles--he pops out of his shackle as soon as I put him in. Another is scrawny, with sharp bones in the neck. You must adjust your task rapidly to meet the demands of each turkey's genetic makeup.

After two hours on the transfer table my wrist bends like rubber; I can't force it straight. My fingers are numb. More and more turkeys get past me. My partner, whose job it is to hang them back up, seems angry.

I try to remember my training seminars. Along with a dozen videos about safety, we learned that we are not workers and management, but a TEAM (Together Everyone Achieves More). The result of our labor is not meat, but "product." And we are subject to "The Jerome Team Handshake," a nonbinding contract weighted toward a "customer-satisfaction focus." One of the training videos features personal testimony from a line worker. "It's the kind of job," he tells the camera, "when you go home, you can feel good about what you do."

Anyone working in the meat industry today owes a debt to Upton Sinclair, whose 1905 novel The Jungle exposed the horrifying practices of the industry. He described meat "stored in great piles in rooms and the water from leaky roofs would drip over it, and thousands of rats would race about on it.... A man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung." The resulting outrage gave rise to modern laws governing food production.

(Not that those laws are always effective: One 1995 USDA study found that 99 percent of broiler-chicken carcasses processed in poultry factories have detectable E. coli contamination. A USDA microbiologist told Time that the germs picked up in poultry factories are "no different than if you stuck [the meat] in the toilet and ate it.")

The Jerome factory is as clean as can be expected, sprayed down a dozen times a day with hot water. Rats and roaches are poisoned before they can get into the meat. In-house inspectors and inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture regularly examine and grade the birds.

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