If you’re eating more chicken, think about America’s quarter million poultry plant workers

The cost of meat.
The cost of meat.
Image: AP Photo/Larry Crowe
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Americans love chicken. On a sandwich, in a nugget, or even as a bread replacement, in the past 50 to 60 years, chicken has gone from a seasonal food usually enjoyed in the summer to an ever-present one. Its availability, a proxy for consumption, has nearly tripled since 1965, making it now the most popular meat in the US.

With last week’s news that eating red and processed meats increase cancer risks, chicken is likely to find more fans than ever. But anyone reaching for a package of boneless, skinless chicken breasts at the supermarket as a guilt-free alternative to burgers might want to rethink that decision.

While chicken is undoubtedly a leaner source of protein than beef or pork, it comes with its own set of deeply entrenched problems. The farmers raising the chickens get paid through a zero-sum tournament system where a quarter of farms actually lose money on their flocks. Industrial chicken farming is also a major pollutant to soil, air and water, a 2011 Pew Study found. And while many consumers are likely aware that factory farming is unpleasant (to put it mildly) for the chickens, they may not realize the physical toll it takes on humans.

A new report from Oxfam America says our cheap drumsticks come at a high price. In Lives on the Line: The Human Cost of Cheap Chicken, the nonprofit says the $50 billion poultry industry is fueled by low-wage workers—usually earning $10-$11/hour—in conditions that Oxfam describes as ”cold, humid, and slippery with grease, blood, and water.”

The report cited statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics and Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) showing how dangerous poultry processing jobs are compared to the rest of the American workforce. In 2013, the rate of non-fatal occupational illnesses, including common musculoskeletal disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome, was 18.8 per 10,000 workers in the US. For poultry workers, it was 104.2.

Poultry workers are also more than twice as likely as the rest of the workforce to get an amputation.

In response to the report, the National Chicken Council (NCC) points to other BLS statistics, saying that its injury and illness rates have dropped by 80% in the last 20 years. However, Celeste Monforton, a former OSHA legislative analyst, who was quoted in the report but was not compensated by Oxfam, attributes the drop mostly to new OSHA reporting rules. To that, the NCC says that “injury and illness rates for poultry processing are decreasing at a much faster rate than all manufacturing.”

The NCC also points to the higher injury and illness rates in the rest of the meat industry. As the above charts show, BLS data does report lower injury rates for poultry workers than others in the meat industry. (The North American Meat Institute declined to comment on its industry’s high injury rates.)

Monforton believes the fact that injury rates for poultry workers are lower than the meat industry likely reflects under-reporting. She argues that because poultry workers have a much lower unionization rate than in meat processing—35% in poultry compared to 70-80% in beef and pork, according to the United Food & Commercial Workers International Union—it makes underreporting of injuries in the chicken industry more likely.

In response to the unionization claim, Tom Super of the National Chicken Council told Quartz, it “gives credence to what this Oxfam campaign is really about: an orchestrated union hit piece.”