One of my major regrets regarding the book is not having had the chance to take photos inside the Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Russellville, Alabama. There have been several instances when I’ve felt completely overwhelmed while trying to describe a scene using only words. Walking into a chicken plant that can kill and dismember up to 1.5 million birds a week was certainly one of those times. Here’s how I describe my first moments on the processing floor:
Superhero comics aren’t complete without an evil genius. Often he seeks to construct the ultimate weapon to hold the world hostage; it he’s really deranged he simply wants to use it to end human civilization. Since the construction of the weapon must be clandestine, work goes on below ground or behind hidden doors. Walk through the door and an immense world of nameless and undoubtedly evil scientists are at work, tinkering with mysterious equipment while wearing smocks and continuously checking devices.
That’s the image that immediately comes to mind when I push through the double doors that separate the break room from the plant floor. This isn’t a workplace: This is an underground lair.
One of the most striking aspects was the sheer volume of dead chickens flying around on hooks overhead. It looked something like this, but on a much larger scale:
On my first night, I walked under the birds and felt a plop of something fall on my head, which I didn’t investigate further. I go on to describe all sorts of other fun stuff, though you’ll have to read the book to get the gory details. In the book you’ll also learn why I wasn’t able to take any photos (hint: it involved chicken plant bosses and didn’t end well).
Thankfully, I was able to get permission from the Charlotte Observer to reprint the following photograph in my book:
The photo, taken by John D. Simmons, depicts a typical scene in the “debone” department. Workers stand shoulder to shoulder all shift, slicing sections off chickens that are continuously whizzing by on a conveyor belt. During a shift, debone workers can make well over ten thousand identical cuts, which helps explain why they frequently suffer from repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel.
When I was gearing up for the poultry job, the Observer ran an absolutely fantastic series about the industry. Entitled “The Cruelest Cuts,” it’s available online here. For anyone that doubts the power of investigative journalism, have a look. In my opinion, the staff should have won a Pulitzer.
It’s pretty incredible that the Observer was even able to gain access to photograph the plant, as companies generally make a point of keeping customers as ignorant as possible in terms of how meat arrives on their plate. (For example, who wants to learn that jobs at a plant include the neck breaker, oil sack cutter, giblet harvester, lung vacuumer, or back up killer?) Indeed, from the outside, the Pilgrim’s Pride plant looked like a typical corporate complex, albeit without windows.
Here a photo I took of the plant one day while biking by en route to the town library. You’ll notice the recently mowed lawn and bright white walls. You won’t notice the blood and guts, which is helpful if you’re hoping not to ruin your appetite.
On that note, have a good weekend. I’ll soon be posting confirmed dates for the book tour, and look forward to seeing many of you around the country. Also, if you find yourself enjoying chicken today, remember to pause to give special thanks to the lung vacuumer–the only person standing between the wing in your hand and an unwanted chunk of squishy pulmonary meat.