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Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America’s Favorite Food

Copyright Date: 2005
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 208
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Anthropologist Steve Striffler begins this book in a poultry processing plant, drawing on his own experiences there as a worker. He also reports on the way chickens are raised today and how they are consumed. What he discovers about America's favorite meat is not just unpleasant but a powerful indictment of our industrial food system. The process of bringing chicken to our dinner tables is unhealthy for all concerned-from farmer to factory worker to consumer.

    The book traces the development of the poultry industry since the Second World War, analyzing the impact of such changes as the destruction of the family farm, the processing of chicken into nuggets and patties, and the changing makeup of the industrial labor force. The author describes the lives of immigrant workers and their reception in the small towns where they live. The conclusion is clear: there has to be a better way. Striffler proposes radical but practical change, a plan that promises more humane treatment of chickens, better food for the consumer, and fair payment for food workers and farmers.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12816-1
    Subjects: Technology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-viii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    Food and immigration. Both conjure up powerful images and feelings. Both are central to how we understand ourselves as a nation and as a people. And both are topics that most Americans feel profoundly ambivalent and guilty about.

    The importance of food is obvious. We are what we eat. For much of our history the family farm anchored our economy, society, political system, and sense of ourselves as Americans. Along the way the family farm gave way to agribusiness, the most productive system of growing, delivering, preparing, and consuming food the world has ever known. Our eating habits, appearance, and...

  6. PART I: A New Bird

    • I Love That Chicken!
      (pp. 15-31)

      Chicken, an afterthought on American farms before World War II, has been transformed into the most studied and industrialized animal in the world.¹ It has gone from one of the most expensive and least desirable meats to an affordable source of protein that most Americans today consume frequently and with unthinking regularity.² Herbert Hoover’s 1928 campaign promise seemed like political hyperbole at the time, but for most of the postwar period there has been a “chicken in every pot.” And when health-conscious consumers began to turn away from red meat in the 1970s, white-meat producers were ready for the increase...

    • II An American Industry
      (pp. 32-52)

      The rise of chicken as America’s favorite meat has been fast and dramatic. At the millennium, the average American was eating over a hundred times more chicken than a person was eating on the eve of the Great Depression.¹ How did this happen? Why did the broiler industry take off in the 1940s and 1950s, and then continue to expand during the latter part of the twentieth century? What factors led the industry to settle in the South? And who, in addition to health-conscious, convenience-oriented consumers, drove this expansion?²

      Until the mid-1920s, the raising of chickens for meat was hardly...

    • III Anatomy of a Merger
      (pp. 53-71)

      Those few growers who have been around long enough to remember the brief moment before the industrywide spread of contracts are hardly nostalgic. There have been no golden years for poultry growers. Contracts and integrators are seen as inevitable, even beneficial, developments. Nor do growers hold anything against local big shots—as long as they did not forget their roots as they transformed mom-and-pop operations into corporate giants.

      What growers are critical of are the contract terms that have developed over the years and the changing context in which contracts are “negotiated.” For most growers, the greatest problem with the...

    • IV The Right to Work
      (pp. 72-90)

      On July 18, 1989, Don Tyson and Blake Lovette shook hands in a public ceremony celebrating the merger and Tyson’s first day at the helm. The future was bright. Wilkesboro would continue to be the home of fresh chicken, now under the direction of the world’s largest poultry company. No jobs would be lost, and continued expansion could be expected. Don Tyson wasted no time in trying to win over the workers with his down-home antiunion philosophy: “Why should you and I, as individuals, have to have somebody work between us? It’s like hiring a lawyer, and both of us...

  7. PART II: A New Worker

    • V Getting Here
      (pp. 93-110)

      Born in Chihuahua, Mexico, Amador Anchondo-Rascon first tried to cross into the United States in 1979. After a ten-day journey on foot, he was captured and returned to Mexico. He waited, crossed again, and by the age of twenty was an undocumented worker in the fields of Florida. After marrying an American and becoming a legal resident, Amador was drawn to Tennessee by the possibility of better employment. His journey took him first to the hill country of McMinnville, where he worked in agricultural nurseries, and then west to Shelbyville, where a Tyson Foods’ processing plant promised even better wages.¹...

    • VI Inside a Poultry Plant
      (pp. 111-134)

      I arrive at Tyson’s northwest Arkansas job center in Springdale at ten in the morning. Springdale, located at the center of the most productive poultry-producing region in the world, is home to the corporate headquarters of Tyson Foods. The Tyson job center itself is a small, unimpressive building with a sparse interior that resembles a government office. Signs surround the secretary’s desk. In Spanish one says,“Do not leave children unattended”; another warns: “Thank you for your interest in our company, Tyson Foods, but please bring your own interpreter.”

      The receptionist seems genuinely surprised by my presence. “Sorry, hon, there are...

    • VII Growing Pains
      (pp. 135-154)

      Thousands of Mexican and Central American immigrants have moved to small towns in the rural United States during the past two decades. This fundamentally diverse population, loosely called “Hispanic” or “Latino,” has rapidly transformed American society. Nearly half of the Hispanic immigrants living in the United States arrived during the 1990s alone. The Hispanic population increased almost 60 percent during this period, from roughly 22 million in 1990 to over 35 million in the year 2000, making this group the largest minority in the United States. (This figure does not include the estimated three million Mexicans who live in the...

    • VIII Toward a Friendlier Chicken
      (pp. 155-172)

      Chicken’s postwar success was due in large part to its affordability and healthfulness. Recently, however, the safety and health of American chicken has come under increased scrutiny. This attention has put industry leaders on the defensive, but it has also created opportunities. Tyson, for its part, has recently jumped on the organic bandwagon with its Nature’s Farm Organic Chicken. With an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” attitude, the company proclaims on its Web site: “Mother Nature has been growing chickens a lot longer than we have. So we decided to follow her example and go back to the...

  8. Notes
    (pp. 173-192)
  9. Index
    (pp. 193-196)
  10. Back Matter
    (pp. 197-198)