Poultry processing corporations are known in the industry as “integrators” because of their role in all aspects of the process. They typically operate hatcheries to raise eggs into chicks and then deliver chicks to henhouses owned by contract growers who are subject to exclusive agreements with the integrator.1 Six weeks later, chicken catcher crews arrive to load the chickens onto trucks for shipping to slaughtering and processing plants.

Jobs inside the slaughtering and processing plants begin with live hangers, who hang birds by their feet to be slaughtered. Most plants today use mechanized slaughtering systems, but some still employ a “killer” to slit the throat of birds that survive the primary slaughter process.

Then, birds are eviscerated and inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Carcasses enter a chiller to lower their temperature. Workers “rehang” the carcasses onto cones or shackles to hold them in place as the line brings the birds to their next destination. Depending on the plant’s end product, the birds may next go to wing folders, who twist and tie chicken wings into position for sale as whole broilers; to workers on deboning lines, including skin pullers; to wing cutters, who use saws or scissors to remove chicken wings; or to deboners, who use knives and scissors to cut thigh, breast, and other meat from carcasses. Some plants include tables where workers pull or slice chicken tenders by hand.

At the end of the line, packers fill boxes and bags with chickens and meat, workers label boxes, and stackers lift the boxes onto pallets for shipping to supermarket or restaurant chains.

Many plants run full slaughtering and processing operations for two shifts a day, five to seven days a week. Such plants send crews of sanitation workers into the plant each night. They spray chemicals to clean blood, chicken parts and juices, and other waste from the machines.

Workers inside the plants endure cold air temperatures, usually below 40 degrees Fahrenheit,2 making it difficult for their muscles to move and react quickly. Plant floors are often wet and slippery from dripping blood, guts, and the “chicken juices” found throughout the facility. Chemicals such as ammonia, chlorine, phosphoric acid, and sodium hydroxide are common. Outside a plant, the air may include high concentrations of feathers and dust from the loads of chickens arriving in trucks from henhouses scattered throughout surrounding counties.

 


 

[1] Dan L. Cunningham, Guide for Prospective Contract Broiler Products, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension, http://www.caes.uga.edu/publications/pubDetail.cfm?pk_id=6271 (Oct. 23, 2009). Cunningham notes that “[i]t is virtually impossible to be in the broiler production business today without contracting with a poultry integrator.” Id.

[2] See 9 C.F.R. § 381.66(b)(1) (2012).