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."