Creation, Faith, and Chickens

Sister Barbara McCracken | September 27, 2017

How can chickens be a religious topic? Consider the creation story in Genesis.

Pope Francis’ letter on the environment, “Laudato Si’,” says, “We must forcefully reject the notion that our being created in God’s image and given dominion over the earth justifies absolute domination over other creatures.”

Most local folks know Tyson Foods wants to build its multimillion dollar chicken processing plant in Kansas and some local leaders are seeking more information to see if it might be a fit here. What sounds like a lot of local jobs comes with a great number of concerns. Among them are how God’s creatures are treated, both animals and people. The Catholic Church and other religious denominations have numerous documents that call for greater care of the air, land and water, which Tyson Food has exploited and spoiled at other plants.

Also from “Laudato Si’”: “It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential ‘resources’ to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves.” Chickens are not to be denied a normal existence. Because of the crowded confined spaces, the chickens never get outside on the ground. Genetic changes to grow more white meat result in legs too weak to walk correctly and their short lives are spent sitting in their own waste. The National Catholic Rural Life Conference has called for the replacement of factory farms by a sustainable agricultural system.

More important is the effect on the workers in those promised jobs. They need decent working conditions and living wages. The 2017 National Employment Law Report says the poultry industry ranks among the most dangerous in the country. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the rate of occupational illnesses in poultry plants has rates at more than six times the average for all U.S. industries.

Poultry workers suffer a great number of serious injuries. OSHA followed up with inspections in response to 86 of these incidents, finding a total of 750 violations, many repeated ones that carry the highest fines. In just 2016 alone, OSHA fined Tyson Foods more than $700,000 for safety and health violations. The fines get paid without conditions being corrected.

Workers at Tyson Foods suffered amputations of fingers and hands when the company failed to provide machine safety guards, adequate training or mandatory protective equipment. Workers suffered fractured hips from slippery floors and burns from chemical leaks. Poultry processing workers make thousands of forceful cuts a day using knives and scissors in cold and damp conditions, with acidic chemicals often being sprayed over the carcasses, and incidentally over the workers themselves, as the meat moves down the line. The speed of work in poultry plants causes far too many workplace injuries. No wonder annual employee turnover rates are between 50 and 100 percent.

Because of these conditions, the plants simply look for more desperate and vulnerable workers. We are also aware that meat processing plants are usually the first place refugees can obtain employment when they arrive in this country. They must have gainful employment very soon after arriving and working at places like Tyson serves a real need for them. Yet their need should not be an excuse to exploit them.

Wayne Pacelle notes in his blog “A Humane Nation,” “Too often technology is used to gain more protein units per square foot, thus making more money for the corporation and cheaper food for the consumer.” With no competition in the area, Tyson will control the entire process through vertical integration. Tyson allows no unions and uses its lobbying power in Congress to insure they are pretty much unregulated.

Isn’t this what sin looks like in the 21st century?