Cheap Chickens and Industry Fat Cats

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Yesterday at my beloved local library I stumbled upon a title that I would otherwise have missed: Chicken: The Dangerous Transformation of America's Favorite Food, by University of Arkansas anthropologist Steve Striffler.  It's a wonderful book filled with eye popping factoids, among them that chicken "in its most basic form is simply not that profitable." 

So, rather than sell us a plain old bird, producers "add value" with thousands of different "chicken products"--some wildly successful, like the 700-calorie Burger King Chicken Sandwich, some less so, like the Tyson "giblet burger" made of pure gizzard that even the Arkansas prison system refused to inflict upon its inmates. Food engineering has helped make chicken profitable, but it's immigrant labor that has kept it cheap.  Writes Striffler:

"Mexican immigration in particular has been about ensuring a steady supply of cheap food.  Today, most of the labor of producing and processing food in the United States is done by Latinos, a majority of whom are immigrants from Mexico ... The problem is that we now have a food system that not only is dependent on cheap labor, but also requires an easily exploitable workforce to produce and process unhealthy foods.  Americans are destroying their bodies by consuming the wrong foods, and immigrants are destroying their bodies by producing those foods."

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Ellen Ruppel Shell is a professor and science journalist who teaches at Boston University. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture. More

Atlantic contributing editor Ellen Ruppel Shell teaches at Boston University, where she co-directs the Graduate Program in Science Journalism. She writes on science, medicine, the media, economics, and sometimes even sports and the arts, and tends to focus on the underlying cultural and societal implications. She is the author most recently of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.
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