Blood, Sweat, and Supper

Bill Cook

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.

After a half hour, I stop looking at the birds. My rubber gloves fill with water and drip down my arms. When I get too close to the flesh with my nozzle, water and blood and fat spray back at me. Three times I take a face full.

"I hate the smell of turkey," someone says on smoke break. "My hair smells like turkey. My skin smells like turkey. My clothes smell like turkey. I can't stand it." It is an almost sweet smell, cloying and pervasive. Everything begins to smell of it. When I close my eyes at night, I see turkeys--pimpled skin, blood-dripping beaks, bruised meat, and always moving rapidly to the left.

The lunchroom at Jerome Foods features a cafeteria serving turkey products made from the birds employees eviscerate and debone. Most of the employees bring their own food.

The tables are generally segregated: Somali women together, Somali men in another corner. Hispanics across the room. Whites off to one side. Supervisors huddled in the middle. At Jerome, fully 75 percent of employees are minorities, most from Somalia, then Mexico and Central America, then Cambodia, Laos, and other points east. Fifty percent speak no English.

I sit down next to a young Somali perched on the windowsill and strike up a conversation. We must listen very carefully and repeat everything twice in order to understand. Abdul (names of Jerome employees have been changed) tells me he left because of "the fought" back home.

Some 10,000 Somalis have come to Minnesota since civil war broke out in their country. At Jerome, they make up the largest minority group; they've overtaken the Mexicans who have been coming to work the fields in this part of the state for close to 100 years.

Somalis and Mexicans, it is commonly held, don't get along. Somalis "are very hostile," one Latino tells me. "If you talk to them, they respond in a hostile way. And Hispanics want to keep up their macho-type image. There's just a clash around the way they are and we are." The same man tells me that fights broke out earlier this year on the shop floor, something I keep in mind when I brush past strangers holding razor-sharp boning knives.

Abdul and I chit chat. He plans to stay in Faribault a year, maybe two. Then he wants to go back to school to learn electronics or computer science. I tell him this is my first shift at the factory. A broad smile spreads over his face, and he says in perfect English: "Welcome! Welcome to Jerome Foods!"

As the turkey industry expands, so does immigration. Some factories recruit in Texas border towns where unemployment is high. (Jerome officials say they do not do this.) Small towns across Minnesota like Faribault, Willmar, Montevideo, Marshall, Madelia, and Tracy all have experienced a dramatic increase in migrant and immigrant populations.

"Local white kids don't want to work in those factories anymore," explains Bob Lyman, a managing attorney at Migrant Legal Services in St. Paul. "As these companies have restructured and contended with unions, the white kids are basically going to walk on it."

Recent changes in immigration law have increased the labor supply. If you want to get your relatives into the country, you must make 125 percent of the federal poverty line. Lyman explains the rule: "Thou shalt not be admitted if you are a public charge. You have to prove to the Immigration and Naturalization Service that you can support the people you want to immigrate. Say the average family size is around five people. 125 percent of poverty for a family of five is $23,463. Migrant families tend to earn in the $5,000 to $10,000 range."

If migrants, who usually drift north for harvest and south for the winter, take a full-time job in the poultry factories of Minnesota and add a weekend job, they might be able to make 125 percent. "As soon as they can, they then bail out of poultry processing and get over to Nordic Track--not so much for the money, but for the sanity of the work." Or, once their families are safely in this country, they go back into the migrant labor stream.  

At Jerome, only 15 percent of the employees who were working at the beginning of the year are still around. When you factor out the people who tend to stick around--supervisors, managers, vice presidents--the turnover in places like evisceration is even higher than the numbers indicate. Last year, Jerome's turnover was 150 percent. Health care, dental, retirement, and profit-sharing benefits generally kick in after two to 12 months. Most Jerome workers never make it that far.

When you're raising, slaughtering, and processing turkeys, any number of things can go wrong. First domesticated centuries ago in Mexico, the birds today are highly inbred. They are so fat, with such short legs, that they frequently get blisters on their breasts from dragging themselves around. Their bodies--engineered to produce a maximum amount of white meat--have swollen to the point where they can't naturally reproduce and must be bred by artificial insemination. They are susceptible to disease: In North Carolina, a virus has wiped out hundreds of millions of birds in the past several seasons.

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.

Worker protections, too, have improved. Safety gear is required--bump caps, mesh guards, arm guards, and chain-mail chest protectors. Workers are rotated from task to task--one in the morning, one after morning break, and one after lunch--to reduce the risk of repetitive-stress injury.

Even so, accidents are frequent. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, poultry processing is one of the most dangerous occupations around, with injuries occurring at a rate of 12 per 100 full-time workers. Other sources estimate the injury rate to be as high as 30 percent. At Jerome, the accident-frequency rate has hovered around 12 to 15 percent in the past five years.

It is this human cost that concerned Sinclair. When he wrote The Jungle, he was not after changes in the food law. He was a committed socialist bent on exposing inhumane working conditions. The result of his work disappointed him. "I aimed at the public's heart," he said at the time, "and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

The first Hispanic to settle in Faribault permanently was Enrique Porras. His father had been a migrant in the '40s and '50s. He was following the same path. Now one of his sons, Raul, is a supervisor at Jerome. Another, Daniel, is a minister at the town's House of Prayer Christian Church, formerly First Evangelical Hispanic Church.

When he was 7 years old, Daniel started working alongside his father in the fields. "It was for me some fun, a little kid working on the fields. I used to get 25 cents an hour. You work so much, and after you give to the household, you get the rest. If you are brought up in that situation, you get used to it. You don't miss the things that you don't have--clothes, shoes. Everything was hand-downs.

"One other thing: Food. That's one thing that always sticks to you--going hungry at night, or eating the same thing for weeks. In the morning beans with eggs. In the afternoon beans with a little jalapeno. Beans for this, beans for that. One of the first impressions I got from this country when I came here was, I would look at the American people--man, they were tall. They were strong. They were big. Now that my kids are able to eat what they need, they are bigger, too."

In the mid-'60s, Daniel's father heard there were permanent jobs at the Faribault turkey factory, which at that time did not belong to Jerome. "Back then they were offering to bring workers from Mexico," says Daniel. "They came down there advertising that they were providing housing, employment, and all this stuff. My dad saw an opportunity. He came mainly because the turkey company was offering these benefits.

"Well, the housing was little shacks that basically didn't have no indoor plumbing. It was like a concentration camp; there were huts all around. It was fenced in with barbed wire. In the middle of the camp you had the bathrooms. No heat, just stoves. No running water."  

Just as he had in the fields, Daniel followed his father into the turkey factory. "Back then they had people who weren't mentally fit to work," he remembers. "People constantly had seizures. They had people who would talk to themselves. They were physically able, but mentally I don't know. People screaming all the time.

"Back then, everything was done by hand. It wasn't pretty, but we had to do it. Jerome was the only place that would hire you right away. You don't have to speak the language. All you want to do is work? Then they would hire you."

Enrique Porras worked at the turkey plant for a few years, and then got a job at Carleton College as a janitor. His son moved out of the factory as fast as he could--first becoming a welder, then a student, and finally a pastor. Today he is in high demand as a translator, trouble-shooter, and go-between for the city of Faribault and the Hispanic community.

Housing is the main problem. Most Hispanics in Faribault live in trailer courts where conditions, Porras says, are "filthy, dirty. You have three and four families living in a mobile home with two and three bedrooms. I know of mobile homes with 16 people in one trailer."

"Last week we had a family who was evicted out of a trailer home. It was condemned because [it] was in such terrible shape, and the people didn't have the money to fix it. This case in particular, she has eight kids. They condemned the house, and now they took the kids away, and they said, 'Once you have adequate housing we'll give the kids back.' Basically they said, 'Well, go look.' She doesn't speak English. She doesn't have money. She has a job that pays $5.50 an hour."

Porras spends much of his time dealing with problems like this--housing, legal, financial, work. Violence erupts in the trailer parks. His church has been spray-painted "Wetbacks go home." But he insists he's not politically active. "I'm getting more toward the spiritual side," he says. "Once we take care of our spiritual needs, our physical needs will come.

"We are a pretty quiet community. We will not cry. We will not make a fuss about things. We will take what we have--jobs, housing. We're like the invisible race."

I'm on the three-point station. Birds come down the line hanging by the neck, but their guts come out of holes cut around their anuses. Three-pointers hook their legs into the shackles so that they appear to be on their backs, looking out between their legs. This gives gutters down the line a better shot at the turkeys' asses. Further down, a pinwheel knocks each turkey under the chin and flips their heads out of the shackles so they hang by their feet only.

As the rookie on the line, everyone assures me that I'll get used to the labor. In the meantime, I wake up mornings and my left arm is numb, without sensation. Ice it at night, one of the workers suggests, and in the morning run it under warm water. Stretch frequently. My hands develop a tremor and won't stop shaking. One day I cut my thumb--I don't even notice how--and that night it swells up throbbing and infected. I douse it with hydrogen peroxide, and it foams at the bacteria.

Louis shows me how to three-point. He is a burly Mexican American from Texas, a defensive tackle on his football team in high school. His arms are thick, and he wears a mustache. He laughs frequently and shows off a gap in his front teeth. He's been here two months.

Reach for the left leg. Pull the turkey toward you. Grab the right leg. Holding the legs evenly, eye the narrow strips on the shackle where they belong. Then with a heave, slap them in place with open hands. "It helps," Louis hollers, "to think of it as the face of someone you don't like." When I pull the bird toward me, it sometimes shits on my apron.

Sometimes I miss altogether and the bird swings back on its neck. Sometimes the neck snaps, and the carcass falls on the floor. Then it must go back to the beginning of the line. Louis makes me take frequent breaks, waving me back with his hand. He offers me friendly encouragement and praises my work. As the shift wears on he sweats, but shows no signs of flagging. In fact, he works harder. Instead of hanging every third bird, leaving the other two for men working behind him on the line, he hits every one with a shout.  

The feather machine shuts off, signaling the end of the shift. In the relative quiet, I realize that every time I slam the legs of a bird into place, it lets out a posthumous squawk.

Louis looks my way with a grin. "It's like a game," he shouts, "but you get your exercise."

Right then I decide I would like to get to know Louis better. But the turkey factory's revolving door makes that unlikely. Even if I stuck around a while, he might not. And with the constant job rotation, you find yourself working next to strangers. There are always more turkeys; the people come and go.

News Intern James Bryant MacTavish contributed to this story.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >