5 Things I Learned Slaughtering Millions Of Chickens
People in the U.S. eat 8 billion chickens a year -- more than one chicken per person in the entire population of planet Earth. The only thing scarier than that number is trying to imagine the insane efficiency such finger-lickin' slaughter must require. So, we decided to ask Sam, a supervisor at a large-scale chicken farm, about how they manage to kill and package millions of birds each week. He says ...
Killing The Chickens Is The Most Metal Thing Ever
First of all, the creatures we're talking about were designed by scientists to be eaten -- my employers have their own strains of chicken that have huge breasts, less feathers, and are fully grown by the time they are about 6 weeks old. At that point, they will fulfill their destiny: A team of dudes grabs them, turns them upside down, and locks their feet into shackles connected to a conveyor belt. The belt then transports the live birds to a small hall, hereafter referred to as Murderdome.
It's like graduating college, only with a more direct approach to killing you, instead of work and bills for decades.
The inside of Murderdome is completely shrouded in black to calm the animals, which you'd think would have the opposite effect. It doesn't really matter either way because the animals are quickly dipped in a powerful knock-out agent that renders them unconscious. Then, a mechanical saw comes out and lops off their heads. It's all very quick and clean ... most of the time.
Sometimes, they come back, but ... they come back wrong ...
If we're preparing halal chicken for Muslim consumption, we cannot cut its head off completely -- just enough for the animal to bleed out. This is all done in one dimly-lit room, as are most throat-slashings. The room is like a carnival of nightmares: It's got a ton of these chickens with most of their heads hanging on by nothing, bleeding all over the damn place into these troughs that are just the deepest red that you can imagine. It's pretty horrible to see, but not as bad as what happens when the saws fuck up. Yes ... "saws" ...
If the right one doesn't sever your jugular, the left one will.
The Murderdome's robotic chicken-slaying blades aren't perfect, you see, which is why we have the catch-all guy. This dude stands at the end of the chicken corpse line with a gigantic butcher knife, covered in blood from head to toe, wearing goggles and a face mask. His only job is to finish what the machine starts by manually cutting the heads of the non-halal chickens, not to mention scaring the shit out of new employees who happen to bump into him on the way to the bathroom.
There Is A Huge Market For Feet
For the better part of American chicken slaughter history, chicken feet (which are actually called "paws") were cut off and thrown away or broken down into simple proteins for dog food. (That's actually what's inside most dog food brands that advertise themselves as being "100 percent chicken.") However, dog food companies are no longer the biggest buyers of chicken gams. At some point in the '90s, someone got wind that there was this tiny country in Asia no one had ever paid attention to that really, really enjoyed chicken feet: China.
"It's like a drumstick, only without all that stupid meat getting in the way!"
Almost immediately, we started flooding the Chinese market with more animal feet than a voodoo Costco. We were selling what was once considered garbage for $1.50 a pound, and we had so many pounds to sell. In 2011, the U.S. exported more than 370,000 tons of chicken feet to China because we were able to produce them faster and cheaper, thanks to an almost totalitarian control of the production process -- which basically means that the United States is the China of poultry.
The second China learns how to make its own damn hen hooves, America is fucked.
We Employ A Lot Of Junkies
Working at a chicken plant is a physically demanding job, and, as a result, our turnover rate is insane. We're constantly in such desperate need of new workers that, if you can walk and breathe, you've already been hired and killed at least three chickens. However, the drawback of hiring basically anyone who applies is that, for 100 or so great employees, I probably get 10 heavy drug users (and I mean heavy).
Using drugs isn't actually an offense that warrants getting fired at my company, as long as the guy does his job well. So, if a worker comes in every day high as shit, but he is one of our best chicken wing cutters, I can overlook that. It's a pain in the ass to train a replacement for that position.
"If you pluck feathers as well as you pick imaginary bugs off your face, you'll be supervisor in a month."
We had this one guy who would put chicken wings on a tray and run them through this circular saw to make Buffalo Wild Wings-size chicken bits. This guy had been on the job for about three months and was constantly causing delays on the line, which meant he was cutting into everyone's weekend, which meant his ass was about to get fired. Then, one day, he shows up at work acting like an amped-up motivational speaker who's ready to mutilate some chickens as if they were the ones who had kept him from finishing high school.
He did a fantastic job ... but, four hours into his shift, he was sweating profusely and twitching like nobody's business. Then, it hit me that the guy had come in high as a weather balloon (we later found out he had been riding on a cloud of meth). I called in another supervisor for a little chat, which went something like this:
Him: He's gonna cut off his fucking fingers if we don't get him out of here.
Me: But, he's doing really well.
Him: We can't let him stay up there.
Me: But, we're going to finish up early at this rate and then we can go drink beer. Did you think of the beer?
Him: ... give him one more hour.
"Then fire him. I don't want him stealing our tall boys."
Yet, despite this ...
It's A Surprisingly Safe, Clean Environment (Because We're Forced To Keep It That Way)
The meat industry has such a bad reputation that most of you probably assume that your chicken was dropped on the ground twice before arriving at the supermarket (once by accident, the second time because FUCK YOU). But, the truth is, the chicken police would shut us down for the day if anyone so much as shot one of the birds a dirty look.
The "chicken police" is what we call the inspectors from the United States Department Of Agriculture (USDA), but never to their faces, because we have to see them every single day. Yeah, the USDA inspections aren't a once-in-a-month thing. By law, no plant can operate unless there is an inspector on site making sure our birds are so clean, they could work in a maternity ward. The end result is that all 16 of my production lines can get shut down if there is even a tiny bit of condensation on the ceiling.
Hey, we make people look pretty for their funerals, so why not here, too?
I did the math on this once and discovered that having our lines closed costs the company about $48 for every second of downtime. That's why our cleaning crew puts crime-scene cleaners in the Tarantino Universe to shame. The night cleanup was especially grueling. As you can imagine, the place gets completely filthy after 16 hours of chicken dismemberment, but we have to have it spotless for the 5 a.m. USDA inspection. They would take a flashlight and look in every little nook and cranny of all the different machines. If there was just a little bit of chicken skin, goo, or tears left on a piece of equipment, the whole area had to be resanitized, and we wouldn't be able to start production for the day.
After all, wouldn't want all that chicken contaminating all that chicken.
All Your Fast-Food Chicken Is Made In The Same Goddamned Place
So, who buys all these millions of murdered chickens? Everyone.
My company works with basically every fast-food chain you can think of. On a busy day, we might start off a shift making strips for Sonic Drive-In and then switch to White Castle and then to Burger King or McDonald's. And I don't mean that we send them the raw meat that they undercook themselves. No, we fry that shit up at the plant and then box it up with the clients' labels before putting it in the deep freezer. All they're doing is reheating it via another round of deep-frying.
Eight out of KFC's 11 herbs and spices are varying degrees of permafrost.
The freezer, by the way, is 50 feet tall and 200 yards long -- an endless maze of aisles and pallets of fast-food chicken waiting to be sent out. It's like that warehouse at the end of Indiana Jones, only filled with dead chickens.
But, no melted Nazis. We have to clean them up for the 5 a.m. inspection.
If you're wondering if working among this bloody, feathery horror show has turned me off from eating chicken forever, the answer is shit, no. I once spent three magical months working in Quality Assurance. You see, every company we supply has us test their product for color, temperature, and taste. So, for those three months, I would have a lunch that consisted of White Castle chicken patties, Whataburger chicken fillets, Sonic Drive-In chicken tenders, and Wendy's chicken nuggets. It was glorious. It was like paying Homer Simpson in donuts. And at least I, unlike most people, knew exactly where my food came from.
Sam is also known as Count Baron Johon Von Chicklenstein of Eggenborough and regrets the death of only three chickens in his life. Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at email@example.com.
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