Workers at one of the world’s largest egg factories arrived at the factory in Rembrandt, Iowa, early one March morning to discover they were about to quit their job themselves.
As they congregate in the huge sheds with piles of caged chickens, the workers are asked to forget their usual routine of collecting eggs and feeding the birds. Overnight, the factory began slaughtering more than 5 million chickens using a horrific killing method after discovering a single case of bird flu. Supervisors are tasked with the daunting task of pulling dead chickens out of packed cages as Rembrandt companies race to contain the spread of the virus amid the biggest outbreak of bird flu in the United States in seven years.
Culling was repeated on chicken and turkey farms across Iowa and 28 other states from Maine to Utah. More than 22 million birds have been killed in an effort to contain the outbreak – most of them in Iowa, the largest egg producer in the United States. The slaughter of 5.3 million chickens on Rembrandt is the largest slaughter of any factory farm in the country.
Workers spent about a month pulling dead poultry out of cages and dumping them into carts before stacking them up in nearby fields and burying them in huge pits. More than that were killed, about 250 people were summarily fired from work with a few dozen skeletons remaining.
In the weeks that followed, animal rights protesters targeted billionaire Rembrandt owner, Glenn Taylor, for lynching, including disrupting games played by his professional basketball team, the Minnesota Timberwolves. But few voices were raised in support of Rembrandt’s workers, some of whom were illegal immigrants.
Others released from the factory contrast with the severity with which the Rembrandt administration took the bird flu outbreak to what they described as the company’s lax approach to the threat to workers from Covid-19 as it sweeps across factory farms and slaughterhouses in Iowa and elsewhere. .
“Right now, everyone is worried about the chicken,” said Oscar Garcia, a former supervisor at the plant. We get that, their method of killing was truly inhumane. But chicken is chicken, right? People in those barns worked out dead birds in horrific conditions, excrement everywhere, and they worked 12 or 14 hours a day. They could not protest because they would then be fired and lose their redundant wages. Then they are fired and no one speaks for them.”
External criticism of Rembrandt focused on the method of killing. Chicken farms previously slaughtered chickens en masse by smothering them with foam or pumping out coops filled with carbon dioxide, methods that have been criticized as inhumane.
But Tom Cullen of the Iowa newspaper in the Storm Lake Times revealed that the birds in Rembrandt were culled using a system known as Ventilation Shutdown Plus (VSD+) in which the air in the barns is sealed and heat pumped until the temperature rises above 104 F (40 C). ).
“They cooked those birds alive,” said one of Rembrandt’s workers involved in the execution.
Animal rights group Animal Outlook used Freedom of Information laws to obtain records of experiments at North Carolina State University showing that VSD+ causes “extreme suffering” to chickens as they “writhe, pant, pant, sway, and even resist themselves the walls of their confinement in a desperate attempt to escape.” “.
“Eventually the birds collapse and eventually die from heat and suffocation,” the group said.
Members of another group, Direct Action Everywhere, have disrupted Timberwolves games in recent weeks wearing T-shirts that read “Glen Taylor Roasts Animals Alive.”
James Roth, director of the Center for Food Security and Public Health at the Iowa State University College of Veterinary Medicine and an advisor to the federal government on biosecurity, acknowledged that VSD+ causes greater suffering than other forms of culling, but said it is the most effective means. To contain the spread of bird flu because it is relatively fast.
“No one wants to see it used but sometimes it is a last resort. The rationale is that if the flu virus spreads so quickly that it will pass through the poultry house so quickly, all of these birds are producing massive amounts of virus in the air. Then you have a plume Much of the virus is coming from that house and spreading to other poultry houses, “It is critical that the birds be euthanized before the virus turns into a huge column of viruses,” he said.
Roth said authorities appear to have learned important lessons from 2015, when an outbreak of bird flu led to what the US Department of Agriculture calls “the largest poultry health disaster in US history,” with about 50 million chickens and turkeys slaughtered.
This time federal regulators moved quickly to contain the outbreak by shutting down the movement of workers among poultry flocks, a significant cause of bird flu in 2015. But this year Roth said the virus reached the United States with waterfowl. From Europe and better adapted to wild birds that are difficult to contain.
This prompted the US Department of Agriculture to push for rapid culling on affected poultry farms. On March 17, Rembrandt reported to his supervisors that bird flu had been detected at the site.
“They sent an email at 10:30pm to let us know they had a confirmed case,” said a former Rembrandt worker who was obligated to sign a nondisclosure agreement in order to receive overpayment.
When the worker arrived the next day, he discovered that the company had already begun slaughtering millions of chickens.
“Once they were dead, we had to take them out by hand one by one, and put them in a wheelbarrow. This is really manual labor intensive. They are not very big cages. There are a dozen chickens cramped,” he said.
“After it was over, we were asked to come to a meeting. We went in. There was a big pile of yellow envelopes. This is like showing a knife to a chicken. You know what happens next. We worked ourselves out of work. I saw people with years and years of experience being abandoned About them. It was totally unexpected.”
Some workers believe the layoffs may be temporary, as it was during the 2015 outbreak. But they have been given redundant payments and asked to find other jobs, suggesting the move was permanent and raising questions about the plant’s future.
Some of the former skilled workers had little difficulty finding another job. Others suffered. “I’m just rushing to find a job in order to support my family,” said a former Rembrandt employee who worked for the company for several years.
Among those battling undocumented workers, Garcia said, have been indirectly employed through outside contractors.
In February, the Storm Lake Times reported that a lawsuit brought by the family of a Guatemalan migrant worker who was crushed to death when his cages collapsed revealed that he was working under an assumed name through a subcontractor.
Garcia also compared the seriousness with which Rembrandt took bird flu to the company’s handling of Covid-19 with its spike in Iowa, particularly among workers who work closely on factory farms and in slaughterhouses. He said Rembrandt seemed to care more about the bird flu outbreak than Covid. He criticized the administration for failing to require workers to wear a mask or get vaccinated.
“They liked the fact that we did not ask our employees to vaccinate because they were hoping to get employees from the surrounding areas asking their employees to vaccinate. They use it almost as a recruiting tool.”
Other workers said that when they contracted Covid, they had to use the days off they took as vacation days rather than being given sick days off.
“It’s a multi-million dollar company. I think I shouldn’t be surprised that they don’t care about people,” Garcia said.
Rembrandt Enterprises has been contacted for comment.