Nuggets of truth: The Charlotte Observer carves up the poultry industry

As the massive outcry in response to the Humane Society’s expose of a California beef-processing plant shows, Americans are extremely sensitive to the mistreatment of animals — even those we intend to eat. It would be nice if we showed we cared even half as much about the human-rights abuses that are epidemic in our cheap-food system.

The Charlotte Observer is on Day 3 of a stunning six-part investigative series, "The Cruelest Cuts," on the lives of North Carolina’s 28,000 poultry workers. (Thanks to Ethicurean readers Kei and Courtney for the tip.) Editor Rick Thames kicks off the series with a searing editorial that compares these workers, mostly illegal immigrants with few rights, to the South’s most notorious historical underclass. But it is not just the South that profits from this neo-slavery.

The Pulitzer-worthy series focuses mostly on one of North Carolina’s biggest processors. House of Raeburn is privately held, employs about 6,000 people, slaughters and processes about 29 million pounds of chicken and turkey each week, and has annual sales of nearly $900 million, including some to China, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, plus sells deli meat under the name "Lakewood Plantation." In a story about the discrepancies between the House of Raeford poultry plant’s safety records and the number of injuries its employees actually experienced, a manager offers one delightful explanation: "Hispanics are very good with their hands and working with a knife. We’ve gotten less complaints.…It’s more like a natural movement for them." The Observer, meanwhile, found that Latino workers are very good at getting the message that complaints meant being fired. Elsewhere, "An Epidemic of Pain" looks at how vulnerable poultry workers’ hands are to irreparable damage, comparing it to black lung in the coal industry and brown lung in textiles.

The company denies all of the Observer’s allegations, saying the "article does not provide an accurate portrayal of the programs, policies and practices of our company or the poultry industry." Several highly paternalistic paragraphs about how it values employees follow.

Thames’s editorial sums it up best: "If you look beneath America’s entanglements with slavery and child labor, you will find governments that failed famously to balance a free market against the inherent promise of basic human rights.…We’ve learned from our history. We are better than that."

To show it, another Observer editorial urges readers to contact North Carolina Senator (and former Labor Secretary) Elizabeth Dole, to ask her to uphold OSHA standards and order an investigation in to poultry processing. I’d add that we can try to elect politicians who believe in upholding the rights of immigrant workers, not punishing them. We can also refuse to support the corporations that exploit such workers — and yes, that means refusing to buy or eat the products of Raeford and Smithfield and their ilk wherever you might encounter them.

Because as long as Americans blithely continue to choose cheap meat, blind to its social cost in abused animals and workers, I’m not so sure we are "better than that."

7 Responsesto “Nuggets of truth: The Charlotte Observer carves up the poultry industry”

  1. meloukhia says:

    Well, I guess I won’t bother sending you guys this link, now. I’m really glad to see this featured, because I think that labour rights is a very important part of the SOLE framework. It’s also great to see a series like this coming from the heart of poultry production country.

  2. kitchenMage says:

    Bonnie, I am thrilled to see you covering this!

    For years now, I have asked people to think about the humans involved in their food production. Sadly, it is often a harder sell than to get them thinking about animals. While I believe we need to treat animals with respect – yes, even (or especially) those animals destined for my dinner plate – and not cause them undue pain, I also think the same is true for the people involved.

    I am looking forward to reading the entire series of articles. With any luck, this will help open people’s eyes to another costly aspect of cheap food.

  3. Scott Kustes says:

    a manager offers one delightful explanation: “Hispanics are very good with their hands and working with a knife. We’ve gotten less complaints.…It’s more like a natural movement for them.”

    Oh my…I love the thinly veiled racism there. I think everyone should read Fast Food Nation (don’t see the movie, which was horrible) to get a good feel of what the workers in our agribusinesses deal with. Treatment of animals AND workers is why I opt for humanely raised, grass-fed and pastured meats, along with the health benefits of doing so.

    KitchenMage, I think a lot of people have this “If they don’t like it, they should just get a better job” mentality. It’s one of those “well, it’s of their own making” sort of things.

    Scott Kustes
    Modern Forager

  4. D says:

    UK’s The Independent – secret investigation into the long and inhumane conditions livestock travel to slaughtering facilities.

  5. ExPat Chef says:

    What was it Upton Sinclair said? “I aimed for America’s mind and hit it’s stomach instead.” Or something of that gist. Yes, the worker safety is just as critical as the ethical treatment of animals. The more I learn about the meat industry, well, the more I want to hug my freezer filled with local, grassfed meats. Thank you for calling attention to this latest issue.

  6. Kei says:

    I was really glad to see that these issues are
    getting some attention in the heart of CAFO country.
    Although judging from some of the baldly xenophobic
    comments posted on the Observer’s site, they’ve got quite
    an uphill battle convincing people to care. It’s truly
    disheartening that people seem to think that it’s somehow OK to mistreat workers based on their immigration status; that
    b/c they’re here illegally, it’s OK to turn a blind eye
    to worker safety. And of course, not all the workers in
    that plant are illegal.

  7. Deb Agee says:

    Elizabeth Dole (rated an F for confronting middle and low income American issues) comments were that she would investigate it but she was not in a position to “police” the state of North Carolina. She doesn’t want to do anything that is controversial – always has to be pushed into it. Like the Navy practice landing field in the middle of a huge migratory bird refuge. There still is a huge “good old boy (and gal)” network in North Carolina that protects each other from the outsiders.  Gov Easley is finally asking for an investigation. The hog (Smithfield – another dismal story) and poultry processing plants hold people hostage so to speak as most plants are out in the country in the rural parts of North Carolina where there are few jobs and not much opportunity. 

    “My feet are in Dixie but my head is in the cool cool North” Jesse Winschester