Wall Street Journal reporter Tony Horwitz won a Pulitzer Prize for series he wrote in December 1994 about working conditions in low-wage US jobs. One of his articles focused on the poultry industry, and Horwitz researched the story from the inside: He went to work at a chicken slaughtering and processing plant.
The conditions he described were, in a word, deplorable, and remarkably, not much has changed since then. Roughly the same number of people work in poultry processing. In 1994, 221,000 people toiled in the plants; in June 2020, there were 240,255. The pay is still terrible. The starting wage in 1994 was as low as $5 an hour. Today, the average pay is less than $10 an hour. And poultry processors still experience a high rate of nonfatal workplace injuries and illnesses.
Those injuries and illnesses are largely due to the fact that workers have to perform rapid, repetitive motions in cold, very loud conditions with no control over the pace of their work, which has sped up considerably over the last three decades. Horwitz reported that the maximum allowable poultry line speed limit in 1994 was 91 chickens per minute. Today, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows a speed limit of 140 birds per minute, and last year the agency proposed to increase it to 175 per minute, but the Biden administration’s regulatory freeze prompted the agency to withdraw the proposal.
Why have working conditions in the poultry industry stagnated, if not worsened, since the mid-1990s, especially given the fact that the industry is highly profitable? One major reason is corporate consolidation, which has led to near monopolies in the same states that Horwitz wrote about.
Rebecca Boehm, an economist with the UCS Food and Environment Program, looked at Arkansas and the biggest poultry producer in the state, Tyson Foods, as a case study and published her findings in August in conjunction with a Guardian investigative story. She found that Tyson’s grip on Arkansas’ poultry industry over the last 40 years is not only bad for processing plant workers, but also for the farmers who raise the chickens, not to mention the environment and public health.
“Tyson’s hold on Arkansas is a perfect example of what can happen when a few corporate players are allowed to run rampant and consolidate their power,” says Boehm. “Just four companies account for 87 percent of Arkansas’ poultry processing, with Tyson controlling just over two-thirds of the market. When these companies depress wages or lower grower contract prices, there are few if any competitors that processing plant workers and chicken farmers can turn to, putting them at a significant disadvantage.”
I recently spoke with Dr. Boehm about her report. Below is an abridged version of our conversation.
EN: First, why did you focus on Tyson Foods and Arkansas?
RB: Tyson is the largest meat processor in the country and No. 2 in the world. One out of every 5 pounds of chicken, beef, and pork Americans consume is produced by Tyson. The company is No. 73 on the Fortune 500 list, so it’s a huge player in food and agriculture and in corporate America. Why Arkansas? The company got its start in Arkansas, it is still headquartered there in Springdale, and it’s the third largest employer in the state, which is a major hub for US meat production.
EN: Tyson certainly could afford to improve working conditions and pay its employees better. It ended its 2020 fiscal year with net revenues of $43.2 billion, a nearly 2 percent increase from 2019, despite plant closures and rampant coronavirus infections among its employees. The company paid each of its top three executives, including Chairman of the Board John H. Tyson—grandson of the company’s founder—more than $10 million last year. By contrast, the average poultry processor in Arkansas makes less than $20,000 annually.
RB: Tyson should improve working conditions and pay its employees better. As you point out, the company amassed a huge profit last year, yet thousands of its employees were infected and at least 38 died from COVID-19 because the company did not give them appropriate workplace protections, including masks, access to testing, and space to social distance while on the job.
In May, Tyson reported 2,866 coronavirus cases at its Arkansas facilities, amounting to nearly a third of workers in all industries in the state stricken with COVID-19 from mid-May 2020 through early April of this year. And last November, it was reported that 1,000 of the 2,800 workers at just one Tyson plant in Waterloo, Iowa, were infected, and at least six died.
What’s worse, our joint investigation with The Guardian found that Tyson routinely punished employees for using sick time when they had coronavirus symptoms.
Even before the pandemic, these jobs were incredibly dangerous. Our report reveals that poultry processing is one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. But it doesn’t have to be. Tyson and its top competitors and other giant processors in the meat and poultry industries have made it this way. That’s why their profits are so high. They cut costs every way they can even if it means putting their workers’ lives at risk.
EN: Could you elaborate a bit about what working conditions are like for Tyson employees on the poultry line? What kind of injuries and illnesses do they have to contend with?
RB: Poultry processing workers have to use sharp knives to cut, debone, and trim chicken carcasses. The processing lines on which they work move very fast, and employees work in close proximity to one another. It’s cold in the plant—imagine working in a refrigerator all day. It’s physically demanding, repetitive work.
The most common injuries these workers experience—according to Occupational Safety and Health Administration data, which isn’t very reliable—are sprains, broken fingers, muscle strains and the like, which happen because they are standing all day doing repetitive tasks. But workers also frequently experience more serious injuries, including cuts, lacerations, and amputations; hearing loss from the noise in the plant; and eye and lung irritation from the chemicals they use for cleaning and sanitation.
Workers in these plants don’t just cut up carcasses. They unload trucks of chickens and keep plants clean, and those jobs are just as dangerous as slaughtering birds. Being hit by a vehicle is the most common cause of death at meat and poultry plants, according to a 2016 Government Accountability Report. Another common cause of death is an attack by an animal or a fellow worker.
EN: Isn’t the Occupational Safety and Health Administration supposed to step in when companies violate federal standards? Or are OSHA fines so low that companies just see them as the price of doing business?
RB: No doubt, federal regulators need to do a better job enforcing health and safety standards at meat and poultry plants, and levy larger fines. But it’s not just about fines, it’s also about how Tyson and other companies punish workers for taking sick time and fail to adequately report injuries and fatalities to state and federal authorities, which they are required to do by law.
Our joint investigation with The Guardian found that Tyson punishes workers for using sick time with a points system. If an employee racks up a certain number of points by taking time off, they are fired. Tyson designed this system to deter its employees from reporting illnesses or injuries. Moreover, many of the workers at Tyson plants are immigrants and refugees, and they fear that reporting an illness or injury to the company could hurt their chances of remaining in the country. So, by discouraging its workers from reporting illness and injury, Tyson is able to grossly understate the number of incidents when it files reports. It is supposed to be an honor system, but it’s a dishonorable one.
EN: Tyson not only has tight control over its workforce, it also has leverage over its suppliers—the local farmers who raise the chickens it processes.
RB: Right.Today, farmers don’t sell chickens they raise on a per-chicken basis to Tyson or other major processors. They are locked into contracts to raise chickens to slaughter weight, which means they are required to sell to their contracted company, even if they could get a better price with another processor. In Arkansas, nine out of 10 chicken farmers are under contract with a company like Tyson, and you will find the same system in other parts of the country where farmers raise chickens for meat.
Through these contracts, Tyson and other processors dictate the conditions under which these farms operate. They require farmers to use feed and chicks that the processor owns. These contracts also prohibit farmers from talking to the news media about their businesses, which is why, when Guardian reporter Nina Lakhani went to Arkansas earlier this summer to interview farmers for our investigation, none of them responded to her requests.
Coinciding with the rise of this contracting system, Arkansas lost 50 percent of its chicken farms, while the number of chickens raised for meat increased by 1,000 percent. Why? Economies of scale, for the most part. It’s cheaper on a per-chicken basis to raise more chickens on an individual farm. We are seeing the same trend of fewer, bigger farms all across the US food system, so this phenomenon is not unique to the chicken industry. It’s a “get big or go out of business” situation.
It’s not unreasonable to blame Tyson and other big poultry processors, which very likely helped hasten this trend. And as a smaller number of processors capture more and more of the market, they can squeeze farmers even more, forcing them to sign contracts for less money. Weak and unenforced federal antitrust laws have allowed this consolidation to occur, despite its impact on small- and medium-size farmers. The US Department of Agriculture’s Grain Inspection, Packers and Stockyard Administration, which was established in the 1990s to address consolidation in meat and poultry processing, has done little to address this deteriorating situation.
EN: So Arkansas now has fewer, larger farms, which are, as you point out in your analysis, unsustainable. They produce a huge volume of waste. What is their impact on the environment? It’s against the law for me to pour used motor oil down a city street storm drain. Isn’t it against the law for these farms to pollute drinking water supplies? Why aren’t state and federal environmental agencies policing this mess?
RB: Yes, as the number of chickens raised in Arkansas has increased exponentially, so too has the volume of waste chicken farms produce. What’s worse, Arkansas farms have become increasingly concentrated in specific counties, which obviously means the waste is more concentrated.
Most of the chicken processing and farming is now in the northwest corner of the state. Our report found that although many counties across the state are responsible for billions of pounds of chicken poop, what the industry euphemistically calls “chicken litter,” every year, the largest share is produced in its northwest corner. That area includes a number of cities—including Bentonville, Fayetteville and Springdale—and a large share of the state’s Latino and Native American residents.
Farmers store chicken litter in litter houses. Or they spread it on nearby farmland as a fertilizer, which often results in nutrient runoff that pollutes nearby waterways that supply drinking water or that people use for swimming, fishing and boating. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to regulate farms that raise livestock, including chickens, but for many years the agency has succumbed to industry pressure and failed to adequately enforce public health and environmental standards.
EN: What can be done to address the plight of workers, farmers and the environment at the hands of such a powerful corporation? Certainly there are steps that could be taken at the state and federal level to try to remedy this situation.
RB: The conditions that workers face at Tyson plants, the way in which Tyson treats farmers, and the company’s direct and indirect impact on the environment are just symptoms of a much deeper, systemic problem.
As our report found, Tyson has cornered the chicken market in Arkansas. It controls about two-thirds of processing in the state and it is the dominant—or only—processor in most of the counties where chicken processing occurs. And because there are only a handful of other companies in the US poultry processing business, Tyson also is the dominant company of its kind in the country. This uber position allows Tyson to exploit workers, force farmers to sign unfair contracts, and ignore the harm they cause in the communities where they operate.
In the short term, federal agencies have to do their jobs. OSHA needs to guarantee accurate illness and injury reporting and crack down on Tyson and other scofflaws by tightly enforcing the laws already on the books. The USDA needs to police the contracts between Tyson and farmers. And the EPA has to make sure chicken farmers meet federal air and water standards.
But policymakers are going to have to reform the underlying market structure—the high level of concentration in the poultry processing industry—to prevent these symptoms in the first place. The federal government needs to address consolidation in not only poultry processing, but also the entire food system to ensure that it works for everyone—processing workers, farmers, and consumers, alike. President Biden’s recent executive order promoting competition across the US economy is a good start. But the government needs to follow it up with concrete action.