Sunday, October 3, 2010

chicken trouble

After seeing this photo on a Facebook post, I knew that I had to investigate where chicken comes from and the human and animal rights involved in the processing of chicken products. This is "mechanically separated chicken"--a main ingredient in chicken nuggets, hot dogs, etc.

So what is “mechanically separated chicken”? Is this really what it looks like? Really? I went to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspections web site to find out how our government defines “mechanically separated chicken.” Here is what they have to say:

“Mechanically separated poultry (MSP) is a poultry food product produced by high pressure machinery that separates bone from poultry skeletal muscle tissue and other edible tissue by first crushing the bone and then forcing bone and tissue through a sieve or a similar screening device. The result is a blend of soft tissue with a paste-like consistency and a cake-batter form. The final paste-like material, has a physical form and texture that differs materially from other boneless chicken and turkey products that are deboned by hand.

In November 1995, USDA's FSIS issued a rule requiring labels to list mechanically separated poultry as an ingredient in processed products such as hot dogs and bologna as "mechanically separated chicken or turkey" instead of simply "chicken" or "turkey." This requirement went into effect on the labels of products that include MSP as an ingredient in November 1996. MSP is a safe and wholesome food product with nutritional characteristics similar to ground poultry. Because of its cake-batter texture, it is ideally suited for use in hot dogs, bologna, nuggets, patties, sausages and luncheon meat-type products.” Copied and pasted from the USDA web site:

“Wholesome”!? That sounds pretty disgusting to me and confirms my staunch position against nuggets and hot dogs.

As revolted as I was by this knowledge, I needed to learn more about how chickens go from live creatures with feathers to food. I found this undercover video of a Tyson plant:

The chickens in this video are destined to be butchered and kept on the bone—I wonder if that means they are being treated even better than the ones who will be pressurized into paste. Searching YouTube, I found video after video showing that these practices are the norm in the chicken industry. That means there is no buying Perdue instead of Tyson to ease your mind.

Yes, some of these videos are filmed by animal rights activist groups that have a very strong agenda to show the worst of the worst, but the extent of the evidence presented, regardless of its source, shows that these are normal, routine practices in poultry processing. However, as awful as this situation is—is this a human rights violation?

I will argue that yes, it is. And here is why: first of all—regardless of whether you believe that animals have rights, I, as a consumer, have the right to know that the food I am purchasing in the store has been handled appropriately and respectfully during processing. Obviously, this is not happening at every poultry processing plant. Secondly, the people who are working at these plants have the right to a decent work environment and I would not describe what I saw in these videos as such. Poor working conditions, low pay, and the emotional stress of pressure to perform horrific acts may directly contribute to animal cruelty and abuse occurring—not to mention the passive aggressive act of urinating in a supposedly clean environment (or perhaps not being given adequate breaks to use the restroom). It is easy to blame the employees for their abuse, but many are forced to work as quickly as possible to meet quotas, get paid, and keep their jobs. It is also very common for poultry processing plants in the South to employ undocumented immigrants to lower their costs. It is easy for these plants to find cheap labor, allow ICE raids to remove up to a third of their employees for deportation, and then rehire new undocumented immigrants to fill the positions of those deported. One such incident can be read about here: Finally, it is personally disturbing to me that such a lack of respect for life occurs in this industry. Animal cruelty and abuse abound unchecked—even encouraged—in the slaughterhouses. Are you willing to ignore this fact when you sit down to eat a bucket of KFC or some Tyson “Any-tizers”? Not me, but to each his own, I guess . . .

1 comment:

  1. On avian rights - we have a pet macaw who's been with us for twenty-six years now. Her favorite Bird Rights joke is the one about the parrot that swore and screamed constantly until the owner, at wit's end, threw him in the freezer for a few minutes. When he let him out, he was quiet and well-behaved. Later the parrot asked the man "If I may ask, sir, what did the turkey do?"

    I agree with your position on cruelty in animal slaughter, for several reasons. Not the least is that I believe that humans are deeply affected by violence and devaluation of life, and treatment of animals influences attitudes on treatment of people. Violence is normalized in an environment where cruelty to animals is tolerated, and people are desensitized to it. At the extreme, animal-torture behavior in children is a known predictor of sociopathy and predator behavior. I'm not a vegan, but I would like for any food animal to be treated decently and slaughtered without unnecessary pain or fear. As far as the cultural aspect, I like living in a society where people watch Bambi, Old Yeller, and Where the Red Fern Grows as kids and have a significant part of their ethics toward animals constructed by those sappy but worthwhile ideas.