Football. Wings. And Those Who Sweat to Bring Them to Us.


Poultry workers rallied outside the annual meeting of the National Chicken Council in Washington, DC last November. Photo: Coco McCabe / Oxfam America

Despite everything, I still love football. I played in my youth, and watch every week, and certainly will be cooking my famous applewood smoked chicken wings for my Super Bowl party this weekend. It is a great game.

But -- I also recognize the darker sides of America's favorite past time. A lot of people give a great deal of blood and sweat to make the football industry hum.

Some of this is about the game itself. This year we've been confronted with shocking new reports about the effects of traumatic brain injuries on football players. The game between the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers takes place amidst a national conversation, spurred by recent tragedies and shocking medical research, about football's impact on the health and safety of its players.

But today, I'm thinking about the national pastime of celebrating during the big game; millions of us will tune in, for football and commercials, and most of us will be enjoying hearty spreads of snacks and drinks. This year I've seen how the extreme health and safety risks to workers around our football traditions extends beyond the playing field to perhaps my favorite game time snack, the chicken wing.

Turns out it's the favorite of most of us. Americans will consume 1.3 billion wings that day. The poultry industry crows about this number, referring to clever statistics that make up "Wing-onomics." For example, that's enough wings to stretch between the two stadiums in North Carolina and Colorado 53 times.

However, Wing-onomics should also take into account the actual work involved in getting those wings off the chickens and to our dining rooms.

In fact, the workers who turn a chicken into that hot sauce-covered fried deliciousness face some of the highest rates of injury, illness and amputation of any profession in America. This past October, Oxfam America released a new report, "Lives on the Line", examining the hazardous plant conditions and corporate practices of the nation's largest poultry companies -- Tyson Foods, Pilgrim's, Perdue, and Sanderson Farms. The report exposes the high human cost of the modern poultry industry.

Sorry to say, companies put their workers at extreme risks to be able to put those chicken wings on our plates. In one survey, 86 percent of workers whose job is to cut wings report hand and wrist pain, swelling, numbness, inability to close hands. A single worker has to clip a wing every two seconds so -- around 40 times a minute, or 2400 an hour, or nearly 20,000 a day. Think about what that kind of repetitive stress, day in and day out five days a week, 52 weeks a year does to the human body? It should be no surprise poultry workers suffer carpal tunnel syndrome at 7 times the national average.

Unfortunately, new reports on the
are no less damning. A recent
, home to America's largest chicken company, Tyson Foods, by University of California, Berkeley and the
found:
  • Six in ten workers suffered from injuries or health problems while working in poultry. Most of these workers received no treatment or compensation for missed work; nearly 60 percent took no action after an injury.
  • Over 90 percent have no access to earned sick leave; 62 percent have gone to work while sick. 78 percent cannot afford the costs associated with health care.
  • The fast speed of the poultry processing line may compromise workers' ability to take care of the food properly. Over half of those surveyed said that line speed and time pressure forced them to do things that might harm the health and safety of the consumer.

Roughly 250,000 poultry processing workers in plants across the country brave unsafe workplaces, and earn poverty-level wages -- at a time when the poultry industry is increasingly profitable. Tyson Foods just celebrated record profits at its annual meeting.

North Carolina, in addition to being home to Cam Newton and the NFC Champion Carolina Panthers, is also home to thousands of poultry processing workers. Pedro, a former night-shift worker at a local Tyson plant in North Carolina, often worked more than 12 hours at a time with just one 30-minute break, standing in 40 degree temperatures continuously cutting chicken shoulders and pulling out chicken tenders. The workers in Pedro's plant had to stay until all the chickens were processed, which could take until six in the morning. The thousands of forceful, repetitive motions in the factory led to problems with Pedro's hands.

"I got to the point that I used to get triple-X gloves, and they wouldn't fit because my hands were so swollen... I couldn't even move my fingers because they were so cramped up."

When he was finally allowed to see a doctor, he learned he was close to losing the ability to use his hands. Eventually Pedro was fired from his job, he believe it was in retaliation for speaking out about the conditions that he and his co-workers endured. He is currently unemployed.

I had a chance to meet Pedro and workers from across the country at an event last year outside the annual meeting of the National Chicken Council. What surprised me in speaking with these workers was that, ultimately, they didn't want to discourage consumers from eating chicken. In fact, they still enjoyed eating a nice roasted chicken. But what they did want was for Americans to know the human cost of the poultry industry and to urge the companies to take action and improve their workplaces.

I'll still enjoy my wings and the great game on Sunday. But at the same time, I'll be thinking about the realities of life for both the players, and the workers inside those poultry processing plants.

And I'll be taking action to spread the word and you can too.