Just a word more of introduction, then, and a story. I teach Old Testament at Yale Divinity School. I have a particular passion for the prophets, literary criticism (I'm writing on irony, currently), and sensitivity to the multiple voices within Scripture's witness, which to me signals that we worship a God beyond the capacity of any one ideology or commitment to grasp or domesticate. I have been a vegetarian since 1998. I had long refrained from eating certain creatures (veal, lobsters) because the inhumane ways in which they were treated. After my dear father suffered an agonizing death from bone cancer in March 1998, I was newly sensitized to the beauty and fragility of all life and decided to eat no more creatures at all.
Now the story. It's a little graphic, so feel free to stop reading if you like. At Yale Divinity, I am part of a three-year national working group on issues of faith and daily life. As part of our ongoing reflection, our group made a site visit to Tyson Foods in Springdale, Arkansas at the end of April. Our visit was not at all about animal welfare issues; it was because Tyson has been working hard to incorporate "faith-friendly" values in the workplace and was thus seen by one of our coordinators as an instructive example of the "faith at work" movement.
It was very challenging for me to even decide to go. Andrew L. (author of Animal Theology and Animal Gospel, and a world leader on animal welfare issues, as many of you doubtless know) was a help to me on this. I e-mailed him, and his response was that so long as we witness the actual slaughtering (rather than avoiding it), he thought it would be salutary to go. His own experience of witnessing a slaughterhouse in action had been revelatory to him, he said. We went to Tyson's Randall Road Processing Plant, which is a "kill plant." The plant processes Cornish game hens at the rate of something like 1.2 million birds a week [sorry that I don't have the exact statistics handy, but you could get them from Tyson's web site if you are interested]. It takes exactly 55 minutes for them to take a live bird and process it into the nicely clean, shrink-wrapped body parts that you see in your grocery store. After suiting up with protective clothing, earplugs, and protective eyewear, we walked through the whole process on the "kill plant" floor.
The trucks keep coming, ceaselessly bringing their loads of live Cornish game hens for slaughter (six days a week, currently; they've been working overtime on Saturdays lately there). A word about how the birds get in the trucks: professional catchers at the farms grab up to four or five birds in each hand at one time, and throw them into the cages. A managerial person at Tyson was laughing about how hard it was for her to catch just one bird, and how impressive these professional catchers are, who just swoop down and grab multiple birds -- one or two necks in each interstice between their fingers -- with seeming effortlessness. So, lots of birds crammed into little metal cages on the back of each truck, with truck after truck coming -- apparently, it's a whole complicated deal just to be the traffic controller for all the trucks coming from the various farms that Tyson has contracted with. Each truck comes to Randall Road and backs up to the opening into the "live hang" room. They open the end of the cages and then tip the whole multi-cage apparatus so that the birds fall down onto a conveyor belt. All of these live birds are simply dumped onto this circular belt in heaps and heaps, and those birds that try to hang on to the cage wire with their feet are pushed with a metal rod so that they let go. The "live hang" room is dark so that the birds will stay calm and disoriented -- they don't try to get off the belt at all, but mostly just lie there quietly, cheeping as they go around. The moving belt is surrounded by workers whose job it is to take one bird at a time and hang it upside down by its feet in metal shackles on a moving line that is at about head level of the workers. The birds hang upside down for about 30 seconds (according to the floor manager -- I didn't time it myself), cheeping softly, looking around, trying to crane their necks to see what is going on, and flapping their wings occasionally. The "live hang" line of shacked, upside-down birds moves then to an adjacent room where the birds are dragged through an electrocuted bath of water that stuns them. [I watched for about ten minutes, and during that time, one bird was flapping its wings after the electrified bath. The floor manager assured me that the bird was indeed unconscious and that those flappings were simply muscular seizures "like epilepsy," not evidence of conscious distress.] About a foot further down the line, a little lever gently lifts the heads of the unconscious birds into the correct position, and they are taken across a rotating metal blade that slits their throats. As the line keeps moving them along, their blood pours into a trough that takes it away for other purposes. Their lifeless bodies then have the feathers removed [I didn't quite get how that worked; it seemed to be a steaming kind of machine], and they then drop out of the overhead shackles onto a low conveyor belt in heaps and move into the next room. Various stations then, in this huge room with lots and lots of overhead conveyor lines, had workers doing various things to get the birds' bodies commodified into attractive packages for the consumer. The workers had, of course, bone-crushingly tiring, repetitive work at all of the stations. The floor manager said they have worked now to vary the stations, so that workers do not do exactly the same repetitive motions all day long; they rotate, either after 30 minutes or after a slightly longer period of time. Different stations had particular stresses related to that task: workers checking the defeathered bodies for defects had the motions of rinsing them in very cold water and lifting the birds' bodies up to an overhead conveyor line; folks who worked in the deep-freezer that is the last storage place of the finished product before transport have to work in a temperature of minus-55 degrees; &c. The birds' bodies, of course, look less and less like birds as they move through the series of lines, finally tumbling out into boxes, cheerily shrinkwrapped in the bright yellow and red packaging as "chicken strips," "nuggets," and all of the other products that Tyson makes. Tyson is the supplier for McDonald's and for many, many other companies. They supply some huge percentage, perhaps 90%, of the animal-based protein in this country and are the world's biggest food producer.
If I may, I'll just share a few of the most poignant and vivid impressions, and then I'll sign off -- sorry this is so long, but I really wanted to share the experience.
1) The images of the "live hang" room and the moment of slaughter are seared into my heart. The birds hanging upside down were uncomfortable and afraid [the plant manager acknowledged that this 30 seconds is the most uncomfortable part of the process for the birds]. I had not expected the constant soft cheeping sound of the birds -- trying to communicate, obviously, as they were being sped efficiently to their deaths. The whole plant is so very busy and noisy, with just countless overhead conveyor lines constantly moving so many bodies of birds in various stages of commodification along. We all had earplugs, as did all the workers on the floor -- what must the noise level have been like for the birds? And the visual and aural busy-ness of it all sort of telescoped in to that six inches of conveyor belt at which each bird had its throat efficiently moved over the gleaming blade. All of the life of the bird, and all of the busy-ness of taking that life away and making the bird's body into what humans want for themselves, seemed to focus in on that moment of encounter with the blade, a moment that was unavoidable for the bird and that was masked as "just another process" by the unstoppable, sanitized technology of the kill plant.
2) We got to talk to floor workers and managers at the plant, plus managerial types at Tyson headquarters, as part of our visit. The floor workers they chose to speak to us were so grateful for their jobs, so earnestly pleased at Tyson's supportive work environment [lots of anecdotes about how Tyson employees were there when someone's child was in the hospital, or worked overtime when someone had to leave because of an emergency, &c.]. These floor workers were good, caring, earnest people who loved Tyson -- some of them had had generations of family members working there before them and felt intense company loyalty. They were very proud of their work and their long tenures with the company. One particularly memorable woman had been with Tyson for something like 35 years, the first 25 spent "packing gibs" [i.e., putting giblets into little plastic bags and, in the old days, inserting the plastic bags back into the birds' abdominal cavities], and then when that practice was done away with, she had worked on a different part of the line for the last 10 years. Another young woman had just been promoted to a spot in the "live hang" room, which pays better than some of the other jobs. She said she is the only woman to be out on the kill line and that she had had reservations about working with only men, but they had all been very nice to her. I had so many questions I wanted to ask about why only men were on the kill line, etc., but it was so important to honor these folks' stories and not pepper them with hostile questions when they were in a situation of relative powerlessness, with their manager and the director of personnel right in the room with them as we talked. Anyway, I was so deeply struck by the importance of this work for those people, how grueling and brutal it was, how privileged I am to be speaking of "vocation" to all the seminarians I teach, and so on. I became more convinced than ever that advocacy for an end to the commodifying of animals needs to be undertaken in concert with prophetic advocacy for social justice, particularly economic justice and increased opportunities for the workers who see Tyson, and plants like it, as their best shot at a decent life for their families. It all expands into the urgency of better education in rural areas, support of small businesses over against multinational corporations, and so on. This will sound obvious, but I saw more clearly than I ever had before that it is so incredibly complicated to try to enact change on this issue.
3) The conversations with managers at corporate headquarters were really eye-opening. Those folks, too, seemed to be very good people, in most cases devout Christians who felt deep pride in their work. They felt that they were "feeding the country" by giving the country these poultry products, and that their attention to humane methods of slaughter counted as good stewardship of the birds, pigs, and cattle they process. They felt, in some cases, that the Lord had called them to work at Tyson. They were happy that Tyson explicitly supports ethical decision-making in its corporate values statement. There was some perceptible (although suppressed) rage at the "PETA types" who, according to one Tyson manager, lie and distort everything about what Tyson does; my point in raising this is that this manager was earnestly, deeply proud of his job and felt insulted and dehumanized by what PETA has said. Again, the complexity of the situation made an impact on me. There was no sense whatsoever among these managers that "faith in the workplace" might also include, say, a prophetic stance about Tyson's notoriously unfair labor practices and union-busting in some parts of the country. "Faith in the workplace" to them, in that company ideology, meant that they could feel comfortable talking about church or the Bible at the water cooler. [To be scrupulously fair: Tyson has instituted a chaplaincy program with maybe 2 full-time chaplains and something like 130 adjunct chaplains who minister to employees; they also have a Muslim cleric now doing adjunct work with them. The chaplains are earnest clergy of faith who did manage to convey for us -- carefully and subtly, with lots of Tyson managers in the room -- the potential conflicts of interest that they have to negotiate sometimes by virtue of being on the Tyson payroll.]
4) I was horrified all day long, but the part at which I finally broke down was at the very end of the day, when the CEO, John Tyson, gave us a tour of his incredibly lavish office suite. He was clearly delighted to show off some furniture that had been made from various objects representing the company. What brought me to tears was his glass-topped end table, the legs of which were made of soldered shackles from the conveyor lines. The same tools that were used in the "live hang" room to hang the birds upside down and drag them through electrified water to their deaths were here featured in a charming sort of "found-object" furniture style. It was horrendous to me; no one else seemed bothered by it, which I couldn't understand.
I am left more shocked than ever at the highly technologized, efficient, ruthless slaughter of living creatures. Even as I type this, even as you read this, those infernal lines are going continually right now, with Cornish game hens cheeping softly as they are conveyed to their deaths and their bodies are being processed. (It must be even more horrifying to witness what happens to pigs, whose intelligence rivals that of dogs, as many of you know.) Yet also I see the need for dignity and meaningful work on the part of these workers, so I am acutely aware, more than ever, that I can't simply attack the corporation as if it were faceless. It is no longer faceless to me. So much needs to change -- education, alternative employment opportunities, &c., so that we can honor all living creatures, including the poor who have little choice about the shape of their lives and who, in some cases, find their deepest sense of community and pride at a place like the Randall Road kill plant in Springdale, Arkansas.
Thanks for listening, and may God prosper your work on behalf of all of God's creatures.