The U.S. food industry is built upon countless stories of ongoing exploitation and violence. The brutal treatment of animals in our meat industry is often spotlighted in documentaries and a bevy of undercover videos, as is its environmentally destructive nature.
But there is also human labor behind our food, and much of it is done in dangerous, harsh conditions. Those who are among the most marginalized are being preyed upon for cheap labor.
In a recent award-winning investigation, ProPublica looked into the exploitation of indigenous Guatemalan people by a chicken processing corporation called Case Farms. It opens by describing how 17-year old Osiel lost his leg:
Osiel sanitized the liver giblet chiller, a tublike contraption that cools chicken innards by cycling them through a near-freezing bath, then looked for a ladder, so that he could turn off the water valve above the machine. As usual, he said, there weren’t enough ladders to go around, so he did as a supervisor had shown him: He climbed up the machine, onto the edge of the tank, and reached for the valve. His foot slipped; the machine automatically kicked on. Its paddles grabbed his left leg, pulling and twisting until it snapped at the knee and rotating it 180 degrees, so that his toes rested on his pelvis. The machine “literally ripped off his left leg,” medical reports said, leaving it hanging by a frayed ligament and a five-inch flap of skin. Osiel was rushed to Mercy Medical Center, where surgeons amputated his lower leg.
The report also details how in the wake of his amputation, Osiel and others were fired:
Back at the plant, Osiel’s supervisors hurriedly demanded workers’ identification papers. Technically, Osiel worked for Case Farms’ closely affiliated sanitation contractor, and suddenly the bosses seemed to care about immigration status. Within days, Osiel and several others — all underage and undocumented — were fired.
There is a growing movement in the U.S. to stop supporting the meat industry and turn to a plant-based diet. However, the exploitation of human beings is also what makes the fruits and vegetables we eat possible.
Now more than ever, people are disconnected from their food. So what’s the next step? Does growing your own fruits and vegetables stop this exploitation? While I think that’s a great first step, I don’t think an individual opting-out will accomplish anything on its own (except your own health and peace of mind, of course). It may feel like an unburdening to be able to wash your hands of benefitting from this arrangement, but people including entire families and children are still being paid next to nothing for some of the most grueling, physically taxing jobs that exist.
The only option left, then, is to listen to the concerns of farm workers, and stand with them against a system that benefits off their exploitation.