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The Church Up to Its Ears in Chicken
by Jim Lewis

As a kid, I used to take great delight in seeing a piece of hot fried chicken on my supper plate. As an adult, if the menu contained chicken in a pot pie or barbecued over hot coals, my meal was a success.

Today, having worked in communities where chicken is produced, I can say quite honestly that I have a different view of the poultry being sold in the market and being prepared for the nation's appetite.

Seven years ago the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware hired me to serve as a priest in a rural area known as the Delmarva Peninsula (an area made up of portions of Delaware, Maryland and Virginia). My job was to assist Episcopal churches in that region in finding out what the major social and economic challenges were that affected people, particularly people often times forgotten and living on the fringe of community life.

 


DPJA delivers a letter to Tyson Foods telling Tyson to pay what is owed to chicken catchers seeking back overtime wages.

The Delmarva Peninsula is noted for its environmental beauty. With boundaries that include the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, the area is both a tourist attraction as well as a source for some of the finest seafood in the world. It is also an agricultural area where crops are harvested in the summer and chickens grown and processed all year long. Chicken in a way of life for people here as well as a stable foundation for the economy.

Because of the overwhelming capacity for people around the world to consume chicken as a part of their daily diet, and, because of the relatively recent mode of producing chicken rapidly and in an assembly line way, huge problems have resulted.

The poultry industry (and I emphasize the word "industry") is a giant rock in the land of food production. It is a rock that needs to be turned over so that what lies beneath can be seen in the light of day by the American public.

What consumers must come to understand is that poultry is a vertically integrated industry. That is to say, poultry companies control the production, processing, and distribution of poultry. The birds that wind up in supermarkets belong to the brand company: from egg to the packaged item the consumer purchases.

At every level of poultry production there are enormous problems. Farmers (called poultry growers) are forced to accept a company contract. Contracts are from flock to flock (every three months) with the company able to end the contract leaving the grower with mortgaged property and no income. The egg is a company egg. It is hatched and immunized with company antibiotics then delivered to the grower, who raises the flock of chicks for the company. The grower buys grain from the company. When chickens live, the company pays. When chickens die, they belong to the grower. Growers are responsible for disposing of the carcasses, as well as the chicken manure. A thousand chickens produce a ton of manure. All of this for a mere 1% to 3% return on their investment compared to a 20% to 30 % return to Big Chicken.

 


DPJA holds a protest in front of Tyson Food's Berlin, MD processing plant after 7 Tyson workers are killed nationwide in work-related accidents.

Large numbers of African-American and Latino workers (many undocumented) make up the work force. They do back-breaking and hand-wrenching work, processing as many as 90 chickens per minute, for wages that average around $7.50 per hour. Most get a ten-minute break in the morning, a thirty minute lunch break and no break in the afternoon. It is an industry with one of the highest injury rates, and health care benefits are spotty with high deductibles. Poultry companies depend on a passive, economically dependent, and uncomplaining workforce - a workforce that is often fearful of joining a union for fear of reprisals. With company doctors and the legal resources to make workman's compensation procedures tedious, injured workers are at the mercy of the company.

Along the Delmarva Peninsula there is a major environmental crisis taking place. Rivers have been closed and large numbers of fish have died, from the fish-eating disease, pfiesteria. Growers are being blamed unfairly for polluting the streams with the run-off of chicken manure into the rivers. In reality, poultry companies are responsible for the manure since the birds are owned by the company.

 

Consumers beware. The feed and the antibiotics that go into the chicken come back to us in the meat we eat. Many growers have been warning consumers that chicken feed contains heavy metals, copper and zinc, along with traces of arsenic. Perdue Farms, a large poultry company headquartered on the Delmarva Peninsula, worried by these reports, has taken full page ads in major newspapers warning people not to buy chicken from other companies. Perdue claims "a strict, all-natural diet, full of things like corn, soybeans and marigolds." What isn't mentioned are the renderings that go into the feed consisting of dead chickens and other animals as well as the blood remains from slaughtered birds. The news that 70 to 90 percent of the nations marketable chickens are infected with campylobacter, a bacteria that can cause sickness and death among those who consume chicken, is most disturbing.

The Episcopal Diocese of Delaware has committed itself to a ministry in the chicken producing communities that dot the region. There is an awareness that the church must not only address the daily pastoral problems of people in the region, but also the justice issues that lie at the heart of the economic and social problems of the people served.

 

 


Roman Delgado, UFCW Local 27 and Carole Morison, Executive Director of DPJA hand out sample ballots to Mountaire processing plant workers before a vote for continued union representation.

In order to do this we have brought together all of the people in the area who have anything to do with a piece of chicken. Calling ourselves the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, we are made up of hatchery workers, poultry growers (farmers), chicken catchers (the men, mostly African-American who pick up the chickens in chicken houses and stuff them into crates for shipping to the processing plants), process plant workers (they slaughter, cut, package and ship the birds), consumers, environmentalists, union members, folks concerned about the humane treatment of the birds, and church members.

Recognizing that church folks say more grace over chicken than anyone, we see the religious community as a significant partner in this mission to change the way the poultry industry is presently doing business.

Since our formation as an organization we have been able to get major media exposure. A "60 Minutes" segment in December of 1999 catapulted us out into a national arena in a most startling way. By helping shape major media articles in newspapers such as The Washington Post, The New York Times, Baltimore Sun, and Christian Science Monitor we have been able to turn the rock over so that people can see what the real cost of chicken is over and above what the product costs in the market. The cost portrayed is the cost to the land and water, the workers, the animals, and the consumers.

 


(L to R) Chicken catcher Raymond White, poultry farmer Carole Morison, "60 Minutes" journalist Mike Wallace, and DPJA chair Rev. Jim Lewis talk prior to the filming of a "60 Minutes" segment titled "Big Chicken."

On top of that we have engineered major lawsuits against the poultry companies for environmental violations of the law, as well as suits on behalf of workers around the violation of wage and hour laws. Since a growing number of poultry plant workers are Latino immigrants (many of them with illegal documentation), we are hard at work on legislative issues that will give this population legal status as they work and live in this country. Just recently we joined a national coalition to address the use of antibiotics in the growing of chickens. We have assisted in union organizing campaigns and provided leadership and organizational training for people working in the various parts of the industry.

Most important in this effort has been the role of the church in bringing together the wide and diverse cast of characters involved in the production and consumption of chicken. It is a real pentecostal event to sit at a Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance meeting and see Latinos, African-Americans, white farmers, union members, Episcopalians and Free Will Baptists, newly arrived Guatemalans and third generation "locals," environmentalists and bird lovers talking and working around common issues that are caused by the poultry industry.

If we are going to say grace over a piece of chicken or make it the centerpiece of a meal on a national holiday like the Fourth of July, religious and national interests will have to be awakened to the injustice that surrounds that meal. That is precisely what the Episcopal Diocese of Delaware and the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance is all about.

Jim Lewis is an Episcopal priest who has long worked on labor & economic justice issues in church & society. He lives in Sussex County, Delaware. Jim can be reached at jlewis@atbeach.com.

Related Links:

Visit the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance at http://www.dpja.org/

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