It Takes a Tough Man...Poultry Processing
April 16, 2007 8:27 AM   Subscribe

This is Our Slaughterhouse "I never thought of making a documentary. It took a friend to convince me that not everyone grew up working in a slaughterhouse. I realized the slaughterhouse I had worked in all those years was bizarrely entertaining enough that it might make an interesting documentary..." 22-minute short film on a small-scale poultry processing plant.
posted by Miko (29 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
At the risk of being too obvious, I should have included a warning that the documentary includes footage of chickens being killed.

This may be of particular interest to people who want to eat more locally and sustainaby. One of the obstacles to that is in the U.S. at present, there is a shortage of poultry plants like this (and slaughterhouses in general). Industrial production such as that of Tyson and Purdue has taken over the bulk of the chicken industry, and it's vertically integrated, so that most chicken farmers don't even own their own eggs or chickens or barns - the processor does - but they do assume the risk inherent in raising live animals that are subject to disease and natural disaster. They also have to accept whatever price the processor sets.

Another problem is that in an age of avian flu, slamonella, and e.coli fears, no one wants a slaughterhouse in their backyard. There are some efforts to create mobile poultry processing units.

Another problem is tighter environmental controls that make processing inefficient at a price the market currently wants to bear.
posted by Miko at 8:36 AM on April 16, 2007

I can't watch a documentary right now, but I had a friend that worked maintenance at a corporate poultry processing plant, and the stories that he would tell were awful. The majority of the workforce were illegal aliens, and so they were essentially slaves of the employer. Supervisors would pimp out women that worked on the line. If someone was injured (like having a hand sliced off in the story I heard) they couldn't file a workers comp claim because they were illegal, so instead of being taken to get medical attention they were just fired right there on the floor and told to go home. He said that federal law requires FDA inspectors to be there at all times, but apparently these aren't the most diligent of inspectors, because when something would go wrong they never stopped the line, because then the plant would have had to stay open longer, and they would have had to stay at work longer. So if something got into the meat they would just look the other way. They also accepted bribes. What did the plant personnel bribe them with? Chicken livers. I swear to god. Federal inspectors in charge of the public safety being bribed with chicken livers.

Anyway, just my two cents. I will watch the documentary tonight when I get home.
posted by ND¢ at 8:46 AM on April 16, 2007 [4 favorites]

The opening line from Stephen King's next book:
It took a friend to convince me that not everyone grew up working in a slaughterhouse.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:53 AM on April 16, 2007 [2 favorites]

This is pretty much why I'm a vegetarian, right here.
posted by Pope Guilty at 9:01 AM on April 16, 2007

Many eons ago, I watched a documentary on my local PBS station about the lifecycle of beef cattle. It was completely without narration. You simply followed a cow from birth, though growth on a farm, to herding onto trucks, to their "trip" through the slaughterhouse, to packaged meat.

It then started over with pigs or lambs, I believe.

it was alternately fascinating and horrifying.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:07 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

I remember that documentary too. It was called "Meat", and I wish I could see it again.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:23 AM on April 16, 2007

Aha! Here it is!
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:36 AM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

From my favorite episode of The Simpsons:

Troy: Nothing beats a stroll in cattle country. Hi, I'm Troy McClure. You may remember me from such educational films as "Two Minus Three Equals Negative Fun" and Firecrackers: The Silent Killer".
Jimmy: Mr. McClure?
Troy: Oh! Hello Bobby.
Jimmy: Jimmy. I'm curious as to how meat gets from the ranch to my stomach.
Troy: Whoa, whoa, whoa! Slow down Jimmy. You just asked a mouthful. It all starts here, in the high density feed lot. Then, when the cattle are just right [swipes his finger along the top of a cow and licks it]'s time for them to graduate from Bovine University.

A klaxon blares out a siren and the cattle begin moving up a conveyor belt into the meat packing plant.

Troy: Come on Jimmy, let's take a peek at the killing floor.
Jimmy: Ohhh!
Troy: Don't let the name throw you Jimmy. It's not really a floor, it's more of a steel grating that allows material to sluice through so it can be collected and exported.

(text from
posted by webnrrd2k at 9:40 AM on April 16, 2007

(Not to derail, but Troy McClure was always the best part of the Simpsons.)

Excellent, I can't wait to watch this.
posted by OmieWise at 9:42 AM on April 16, 2007

Blood Sweat and Fear: Workers Rights in U.S. Meat and Poultry Plants - by Human Rights Watch

GAO report on safety in the meat & poultry Industry

"The type of work performed and the plant environment expose workers to many hazards. The work is physically demanding, repetitive, and often requiresworking in extreme temperatures—such as in refrigeration units that range frombelow zero to 40 degrees Fahrenheit—and plants often have high turnover rates.Workers often stand for long periods of time on production lines that move veryquickly, wielding knives or other cutting instruments used to trim or remove portions of the carcasses. Conditions at the plant can also be loud, wet, dark, and slippery. Workers responsible for cleaning the plant must use strong chemicals and hot pressurized water to clean inside and around dangerous machinery, and may experience impaired visibility because of steam."

"Workers can also be cut by their own knives during the butchering and cutting processes. For example, according to an OSHA publication, one worker in a meatpacking plant was blinded when the knife he was using to pick up a ham prior to boning slipped out of the ham, striking him in the eye. The report also described an incident in which another worker’s face was permanently disfigured when his knife slipped out of a piece of meat and struck his nose, upper lip, and chin. In another incident, according to OSHA, a worker who attempted to replace his knife in the scabbard hanging from his belt missed the opening and pushed the knife into his leg, severed his femoral artery, and died."

posted by madamjujujive at 9:43 AM on April 16, 2007

Last year I had to read this book for a college class. The author didn't grow up in a slaughterhouse, but spent his college years in one. I'm usually not big on this kind of writing, but it was a fascinating look at the social dynamics of a bygone era.
posted by Lucy2Times at 10:05 AM on April 16, 2007

I don't have the stomach to look at this now, but if you're interested in the dark underbelly of industrial food production, take a look at Nikolaus Geyrhalter's excellent and strangely beautiful Our Daily Bread (Rotten Tomatoes - my review.) Linklater's Fast Food Nation is depressing but worthwhile, too.
posted by muckster at 10:11 AM on April 16, 2007

this documentary is interesting. I wish more of the food industry still worked like this family run business.
posted by subtle_squid at 10:21 AM on April 16, 2007

If I ever get off this killin' floor
I'll never get down this low no more
No-no, no-no, I'll never get down this low no more

posted by breezeway at 10:49 AM on April 16, 2007

I'm looking forward to watching this. I am currently reading Christoper D. Cook's Diet for a Dead Planet: Big Business and the Coming Food Crisis and highly recommend it for an understanding of corporate agribusiness today, how it got that way, and why there are so few of these smaller operations around. (Although I am reading the hardcover edition, which bears the more blunt subtitle: "How the Food Industry is Killing Us".)
posted by trip and a half at 10:50 AM on April 16, 2007

Aha! Here it is!
Double-plus-good, SCDB! I'd forgotten the title. I'd forgotten it was in B/W. That's probably for the best...
posted by Thorzdad at 11:31 AM on April 16, 2007

Thanks for making that point, Burhanistan. I actually posted it because it is about the best-case scenario for poultry production, outside of Grandma's backyard, an axe, and a stump.

As someone who chooses to eat meat, I think it's important for me to come to terms with what that means even under these ideal conditions; accepting the conditions of major meat-packing plants is another step entirely.The people working in this business are paid a living wage, have breaks and a pleasant work atmosphere, know and like one another. The farmers who raised the chickens seem to appreciate the family's way of doing business and feel that it's superior.

But even in this, the best-case scenario, there are some unpleasant truths that are just part of meat consumption. Chickens who would rather not be killed still have to be killed. Workers still get injured and have to get used to the smell and the handling of guts. I thought it was interesting and thought-provoking to watch people who work in this plant talk about their jobs; after all, this is what I'm asking people to do so I can have chicken to eat.
posted by Miko at 12:28 PM on April 16, 2007 [1 favorite]

Therefore I am a vegetarian.
posted by chance at 2:16 PM on April 16, 2007

I’m not normally the chicken killing type, but I had a friend with a flock who was moving. She asked if I wanted the flock for meat. Then told me slaughtering them would be part of the bargain.

I read a few books and set up a cleaning area. It ain’t easy. I tried several methods, ax, razor, knife pith. Pith is hard but supposed to work the best. I couldn’t do it. Razor worked best. One of the tricks is to not upset the bird as it’s dying. If it’s terrified at death its feathers are impossible to pluck. Another good reason not to use an ax, or more precisely, only use a very sharp ax. Something like that.

Chickens are wonderful animals and they and their eggs are delicious. If you want to keep chickens, only eat the males and eat them young.

That flock fed me during a rather lean winter.

Thanks for the wonderful movie. These folks are great at what they do and love doing it.
posted by Toekneesan at 5:13 PM on April 16, 2007

My great-grandma just twisted their heads off and got ready to pluck. What's all this about an ax?
posted by HyperBlue at 8:42 PM on April 16, 2007

Nice post, Miko. And a nice title for that film. I’ve always thought Meat, by the great documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, was the scariest film I've ever seen. And I haven't had a turkey sandwich since... well, since this afternoon actually. But it's still terrifying.

I wish I could see it again.

Steven, it's for rent or sale from Wiseman's own website. A remarkable film.
posted by LeLiLo at 9:10 PM on April 16, 2007

Outrageous; maybe I'll buy it.

One of the more amazing images in that film was the Judas goat at the lamb slaughterhouse. It seemed to know its job; it led the lambs to slaughter, and then stood there and watched -- apparently secure in the knowledge that it would not face slaughter itself.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:16 PM on April 16, 2007

Ahem choke cough... at those prices, maybe I won't buy it.

I was hoping for a DVD.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 9:19 PM on April 16, 2007

The phrase has also been used to describe a goat that is used to find feral goats that are targeted for eradication. In many ecosystems goats introduced there mostly by European colonists are a pest or can outcompete endemic endangered species. The Judas goat is outfitted with a transmitter, painted in red and then released. The goat then finds the remaining herds of feral goats, allowing hunters to exterminate them.
- wikipedeia.

I wonder what goes through that goat's mind?
posted by sebastienbailard at 9:51 PM on April 16, 2007

The Essex Pig Company run by Jimmy Doherty has shown that the public is willing to support small scale traditional farming initiatives. It was wonderfully documented in Jimmy's Farm from the beeb. They say there may be a follow-up.
posted by arse_hat at 9:54 PM on April 16, 2007

I find it hard to believe that I'm the first on this thread to recommend The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. It's a hundred years old now and still and shocking and brilliant as ever. Makes today's slaughterhouses look clean and safe. Almost.

Great post. +1
posted by WPW at 2:54 AM on April 17, 2007

I didn't say that The Jungle was descriptive of the slaughterhouse in the documentary. I said that The Jungle makes today's slaughterhouses look clean and safe, almost. Any industrial process that involves animal guts is never going to be 100% clean, and any repetitive activity that involves blades is never going to be 100% safe.

It's a good book. That's why I recommended it.
posted by WPW at 9:42 AM on April 17, 2007

I basically assume that _The Jungle_ was required reading for people in high school, at least for Americans. Is that no longer a safe assumption?
posted by Miko at 8:09 PM on April 17, 2007

I'm British, and it's hardly known at all here.
posted by WPW at 7:30 AM on April 18, 2007

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