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