As I walked away from the shed I knew that later that evening the chicken catchers would go into action - local lads earning a bit on the side. In the near darkness they would grab handfuls of chickens by the legs - broken bones, hock burns and heart conditions notwithstanding - and cram them into cages for transport to the processing plant the following day. It was this plant that I now had to face. Again, what I saw then is typical of all modern processing plants in operation today.
The one I saw for the first time was not what I expected. It was an antiseptic model of efficiency in which time and motion studies had erased the waste of anything - even urinating time. When I spoke privately to one of the workers there, he told me about the company’s ‘bog book’. To avoid any possibility of time-wasting, all workers had to be logged into a book by their overseer every time they went to the lavatory. This way the company could keep trace of how often each person took a toilet break and how long it lasted. That gives a flavour of the management techniques which have helped turn chicken from a luxury into a food often cheaper in price than tomatoes.
As part of this model efficiency, a constant and predictable stream of birds has to be channelled down the lines and lorries arrive at preset times throughout the day, leaving a trail of white feathers behind them as they drive through the countryside.
As each lorry arrives, the birds are removed. In this particular plant it was done in a covered unloading bay adjoining the main building. Shackles dangled from a constantly moving, overhead conveyor system and the unloaders placed the feet of the chickens in the shackles so that the birds were slowly borne away, hanging head down, wings flapping feebly. It isn’t difficult to imagine the effect on birds with broken bones or 27 kg turkeys with diseased hip joints.
The conveyor line of fluttering chickens disappeared through a hole in the wall, but before it did so it ran across the top of a large water-filled tank in such a way that the head and neck of each bird was immersed in it. The water was electrified, designed to stun. As the line continued past the tank, the flutterings stopped. In fact, apart from an occasional spasm, all movement ceased and the motionless, dripping animals disappeared from view.
I had initially undertaken not to witness the killing of the birds, but here was a whole industry based on slaughter and it seemed quite ludicrous that a 16-year-old should be so coy, so protected, that an event which now takes place more than 600 million times a year in one small country alone should somehow be too shocking to witness.
So I was taken into the main building and picked up the production line from where I had last seen it. The birds emerged still largely motionless and dripping from the electrified bath. The conveyor line took them past a man standing over a drain, clad from head to foot in white with a full-length waterproof apron.
His job consisted of two actions - with his left hand he took hold of a bird’s head, then with the small sharp knife in his right hand he slashed the side of its neck. Blood immediately gushed out. He did it on and on and on, all day long. His hands and his apron, from chest to floor, were bright red with the blood of an endless line of miserable little creatures whose impoverished existence had been instigated by a multinational corporation and were now being clinically ended by it.
The workers in the plant, inured to this simple sight, hadn’t woken up one day with a burning desire to work in a chicken killing and processing plant, but ‘It’s better than being on the dole!’, as one of them put it to me. It seemed to me that in this little tableau was an encapsulation of our society’s values. Eleven years of full-time education; public libraries and universities; centuries of great literature, music and painting; a struggle by political thinkers and philosophers to distil the essence of life - and this man was cutting throats because he had no other options.
The whole process of killing moved me in a way I least expected. I looked at the monotonous repetition, unemotional and matter-of-fact, which left a string of bloodied, gaping necked creatures dangling as they moved forward in perpetual motion and I felt sorry for them. But no more sorry than I had felt for their miserable existence. What really affected me was the global brutality it represented.
The conveyor continued, dragging the birds through a bath of hot water known as the ‘scalding tank’. Its purpose is to loosen the feathers. From here the carcasses went into the plucking machine where rubber fingers flailed the bodies, dragging the feathers out as they did so.
Design is a fascinating concept and it has enriched and improved our lives in innumerable ways. But if I were a designer, I wonder how I would react if someone rang me up and asked me to design something that would pull off a chicken’s head. The answer, in fact, was quite simple - a kind of Archimedes screw which, with each revolution, pulled the head further from the body until eventually it simply tore it off.
Next stop was evisceration - disembowelling. Again, it was carried out automatically. A kind of metal spoon entered through the anal cavity and literally scooped out all that was inside. The same spoon was used for every chicken that passed by.
Washing, preparation and packing followed. Those chickens that were to be sold fresh were neatly wrapped, breast uppermost, in transparent plastic, each sitting on its own Styrofoam drip tray. Those to be frozen were delivered to the freezer department.
Within a few hours of entering the plant, each chicken was branded for the supermarket and adorned with glowing accolades –‘prime quality’, ‘premier grade’, ‘premium selection’. A bit like some geniuses, they had to wait for death before anything nice was said about them.
One brief inspection cannot reveal all, as I was later to find out. The immediate reaction of chickens when they are hung upside down is to raise their heads. This can mean that they completely miss the stunning bath and go to the blade fully conscious.
Even worse, technology moves on and the blood-spattered man with the knife has been replaced in many plants by an automatic cutter. Because not all chicken throats are identical, the position of the blade is not necessarily ideal. It can mean that some larger birds are cut on the breast and smaller ones on the head so that they both enter the scalding tank conscious.
Furthermore, even if the neck is cut, most automatic machines in current use sever the back or side of the neck and rarely cut the carotid arteries. This means that millions of birds are still conscious at this stage. A study involving three batches of broilers showed 6.8 per cent, 10 per cent and 23.4 per cent still not dead on entering the scalding tank.
Dr Henry Carter, past President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons, states in the report:
Procedures in far too many poultry slaughterhouses do not ensure that the birds are adequately stunned, leaving an unknown number alive and still conscious when they enter the scalding tank. It is high time that politicians and legislators put an end to practices that are unacceptable and inhumane.
There are incidents throughout all our lives which are encapsulated and remembered with just one powerful visual image. The look from the boar was one such. As I left the processing plant I saw another. Huge lorries waited outside the loading bay and one of them was piled high with its empty wire cages. In the topmost tier was just one single crouching chicken, the blustering wind ruffling its feathers. I have no idea why it was there or what would eventually happen to it, but that solitary bird embodied my feelings on that day. It was then that I decided I would spend my life working to try and bring about change in a world where institutionalized cruelty seemed to pass without comment and where compassion was considered almost a crime.