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July 2016, Volume 22, Number 3

Meat and Migrants

Workplace raids that removed unauthorized Hispanics from meatpacking plants in 2006-07 encouraged meatpackers to hire refugees, some of whom are Muslims. Some Muslim workers with fewer scheduled prayer breaks than they wish quit or were fired and filed complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Title VII requires employers to accommodate employees' religious preferences unless religious accommodation causes an "undue hardship." Most employers provide two 10-minute breaks per eight-hour day, but some Muslims say that they need 15 minutes to wash and pray.

Disputes over prayer breaks prompted Cargill to fire 150 workers at a beef plant in Fort Morgan, Colorado in December 2015; the workers insisted on praying in groups, which disrupted production. Some of the fired workers, who are represented by Teamsters Local 455, applied for unemployment insurance benefits, which Cargill opposed because they were fired for cause. Hourly wages average almost $15 an hour at the Fort Morgan plant.

Poultry. DOL's Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs in May 2016 sued Pilgrim's Pride, a unit of JBS that is the second-largest US poultry processor, alleging that Pilgrim's Pride discriminated against women and minority applicants for jobs. The OFCCP was involved because Pilgrim's Pride has federal contracts.

A federal court in April 2016 allowed a class-action suit against Mahard Egg Farm in Oklahoma and Texas to proceed; workers alleged that Mahard did not pay workers at least the minimum wage for all hours worked.

Most broiler chickens are raised by farmers who have contracts with processors who provide them with chicks and feed and buy their grown birds, a vertically integrated system. There has been criticism of the processors, who treat farmers as independent businesses yet control most aspects of their businesses by setting prices for chicks and feed and the price at which they buy mature chickens.

There are 34 US chicken processors, and the largest 20 have a total of 12,000 contract farmers. Over half of the processor-farmer contracts are flock-to-flock, meaning less than a year so that they can be ended easily. Farmers with newly built housing for chickens often have 10- to 15-year contracts to satisfy lenders. Regulations to give farmers more rights to bargain with processors have been blocked.

Chickens usually eat about 12 pounds of feed in 50 days to reach a market weight of 6.2 pounds, with up to five percent dying before being sold. Farmers typically receive about 6.3 cents a pound, making each chicken worth $0.40.

Some 53 billion pounds of chicken were produced in 2015. Some breeders are slowing down weight gains, appealing to consumers who want slower growing chickens. The world is expected to produce 90 million tons of chicken in 2016.

Perdue in June 2016 announced changes to the way that broilers are raised, including more space in growing barns and putting chickens to sleep before processing. Perdue led the industry in reducing the routine use of antibiotics, and purchased Coleman Natural Foods in 2011 and Niman Ranch in 2015.

Tyson Foods, the largest poultry producer, asks its farmers to implement five freedoms for their chickens: freedom from hunger and thirst, discomfort, pain and disease, and fear and distress, and freedom to express normal behavior.

Upton Sinclair, who died in 1968, wrote The Jungle in 1906 to describe a Lithuanian immigrant's experience laboring in Chicago's meatpacking industry, including very poor working conditions and unsanitary conditions for processing meat. The Jungle prompted the first federal efforts to regulate meatpacking in 1906, and led to 60 years of Sinclair's muckracking, urging action on food safety, birth control, and other causes.

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