In 2018, I worked at Amick Farms, a chicken slaughter plant in Maryland that recently experienced an outbreak of COVID-19, which has resulted in the death of three employees so far. Like many others, I worked on the shackle line hanging live birds destined to have their throats slit. Unlike the others, I also wore a camera and collected undercover footage revealing the cruelty that happened at Amick Farms under the new USDA high-speed slaughter program — both to animals and to workers who are now being forced to stand in close quarters to perform their job duties during a pandemic. For Amick and the USDA, not even COVID-19 can disrupt business-as-usual.
Filming with a hidden camera, I documented the high cost animals pay in this system. I saw birds repeatedly punched, tossed, shoved, squeezed and pulled. Birds were thrown down the rapidly moving line and workers were moving too quickly to catch mistakes, which led to some birds missing the slaughter blade and entering tanks of scalding hot water while still alive. Lines frequently broke down, trapping birds with their heads underwater in the stun bath to drown or succumb to the electric current.
After witnessing (and experiencing) unsanitary working conditions during my time there, I knew just how easy it would be for the virus to spread — and for the spread to get brushed under the rug for as long as possible.
What I didn’t expect was just how dangerous and exhausting working there would be. Reading that coronavirus was spreading at Amick Farms didn’t surprise me. After witnessing (and experiencing) unsanitary working conditions during my time there, I knew just how easy it would be for the virus to spread — and for the spread to get brushed under the rug for as long as possible. After experiencing a hand and wrist injury as a result of repetitive motions on the quickly-moving lines, I was essentially told to just go back to work. When I saw an outside doctor, my managers were angry and I almost lost my job. The only way I could keep it was by signing a form releasing the plant of any liability.
It seems as though liability and accountability have been out the window for slaughter plants for years when it comes to both workers and animals.
While at Amick, my body ran the gamut of adverse reactions to the unsanitary conditions. My skin constantly broke out in rashes. I suffered two lung infections that caused fevers as high as 104.6 degrees and severe coughing. My eyes and nose constantly burned due to ammonia from chicken urine and lack of ventilation. My eyes even changed color. And through it all, I was never offered light duty while I was sick or in pain; a co-worker even suggested I start smoking cigarettes to help stop the burning in my lungs.
And now, as even more dire threats of illness loom, current Amick workers report that the facility is selling masks to workers to prevent the spread of coronavirus — not providing them as most of us would consider the responsible thing to do.
But slaughterhouses don’t care about responsibility, they care about their bottom line. And while people like me can at least speak out, animals suffer in silence. Only I and the other workers are able to hear their cries. And we are powerless to do anything about it while we are there.
As workers struggle to keep up with the slaughter line and stay safe during the pandemic, the USDA has recently been granting waivers increasing the number of birds they can kill per minute. Under this new rule, plants are permitted to kill 175 birds per minute (up from 140). That means nearly three birds are slaughtered every second, and workers are expected to keep up. This could result in more injuries to workers, plus dire consequences for chickens.
The air conditioning didn’t work in the oppressively hot and filthy room, and the machinery often broke down. Workers would take off their shirts due to the heat, becoming exposed to even more dangers, and birds would get stuck hanging upside down during equipment breakdowns, some possibly experiencing a painful electric shock while they died of drowning.
But shockingly, birds are exempted from protection under the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, and it’s clear that plant owners, managers, and American consumers often don’t think twice about workers either.
The U.S. government has a responsibility to end bailouts for this cruel industry and slow down the slaughter lines for the sake of workers and animals. But when we handed our footage over to federal and state authorities documenting squalid worker conditions and rampant animal cruelty, nothing was done. In fact, Amick’s waiver to operate at higher line speeds was renewed.
It’s time for consumers to take matters into their own hands. I go undercover because what happens in places like Amick Farms is a horror many are simply not aware of. Though Big Ag executives have shown that they don’t care, consumers deserve to know the truth and adjust their lifestyle accordingly. This “new normal,” as so many have been calling it, is an opportunity to completely reimagine the U.S. food system and make the ethical choice to support workers trying to make a living and the innocent animals they are forced to kill.
For a more in-depth look at my Amick Farms investigation, visit AnimalOutlook.org.