A couple of months ago I came across a post written by Glen Muller, an Ex Factory Farm Worker turned Vegan, on the Animals Australia Unleashed Forums. You can see the post here. We got in contact and started working on a very in-depth interview for Vegan Tasmania. I hope this interview serves a voice to the animals exploited, tortured and killed in Factory Farms and educates those who never spare a thought to what ends up on their plates. I would also like to thank Glen for speaking out and working with me on this project. A lot of time and heart was spent in the making of this interview. Thank you!
Vegan Tasmania: When did you begin your work in the factory farming business?
When I finished Year 12 more than ten years ago, I took a Christmas fill position at the Castlemaine Bacon Company, now known as KR Castlemaine. I worked there for just over two months, as the job was only to help cover the rush of ham orders over the Christmas period. For one day in early 2004 I worked in a hatchery near Bendigo, Victoria. It was horrible - I couldn't take any more than that.
In March 2006, I returned to Victoria from living in Adelaide for just over 18 months, and I required a new job. I was happy to take any job I could get quickly, and this indiscriminate desire to be employed saw me working in the processing line at the Hazeldene's Chicken Farms factory. I also worked for a poultry farming contractor between July 2008 and March 2009, until I was given a new job completely out of the factory farming industry.
Vegan Tasmania: What jobs did you perform?
At Castle Bacon, I worked as a factory cleaner on night shift. We started at 7pm, and we were set free only when the work was completed. Sometimes this could be hours after sunrise. As a cleaner, I was responsible for cleaning the production facilities to a sanitary level, which involved a lot of back-breaking work, use of chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, and use of high-pressure and high-temperature cleaning equipment. It was disgusting; the blood and fat was sometimes near impossible to remove from the plastic conveyor belts, and the build-up of meat, fat, bone and marrow in the band saws could take quite some time to remove.
Because I had that job in summer, often we were given vats to clean that had been left outside in the searing heat all day, and had remnants of pork left in them which would be completely full of maggots within hours. We would pour the acid in, kill the maggots, and clean and sanitise the equipment. This equipment was then seen as fit to return to the production line.
I sustained a few injuries from the cleaning equipment: burns from the steam pipes which fed our hot water hoses, a very painful abrasive cut to my wrist from a 2500psi pressure washer, and a sore and itchy nose for over a week when a tiny drop of acid landed on the end of it. When I was fired (due to the work drying up), I was both glad I wouldn't have to work there anymore and disappointed that I didn't have an income guaranteed.
When I was working at the Hazeldene's processing facility, I performed a large number of different jobs. The manufacturing process is incredibly systematic in that each worker only performs one task when at any given work station.
I worked in the spin chill, which was a room with a large tank of water near freezing temperature, in which the chickens would be placed in huge quantities straight after being killed, the blood drained, feathers removed, intestines removed, beheaded and their feet cut off. The carcasses spent about 20 minutes being rotated along the tank, in order to rapidly bring the temperature of the meat down to 2 degrees Celsius, and eventually came tumbling into a trough where four to five workers would be re-hanging them by the legs to enter a blast chiller for an hour or so, before going through the processing and packing area. The spin chill was a very cold and difficult area to work in; your hands would be numb in less than 5 minutes but you would still be expected to have this two-handed coordination thing going on and hang at least one chicken every second, for the entire 90 minute rotation.
I also worked in the packing and sorting room, where the chickens would automatically drop into large stainless steel bins according to their weight, and you had to pack a certain amount of them into boxes or crates. This was incredibly boring and tedious, because this was the only thing you did in that area. Some people had been doing that same job for years. I have no idea how.
I also spent quite a lot of time in the seasoning area, which is the section I originally started in when I first worked for Hazeldene's. The chickens would be marinated by a large machine which injected a strong-smelling yellowish mix of sugar, flavours, preservatives and sodium into the meat itself, and very dodgy lumps of frozen stuffing would be inserted into the empty cavity which once housed the chicken's internal organs. These chickens would be sold to Coles and Woolworths, as well as many charcoal chicken and take-away shops around Victoria, and cooked in store and sold to the public as roast chicken, ready to eat. People eat this stuff!
I also worked in other packing areas in the factory, including the area where all the chickens are cut into the various parts (wings, drumsticks, Maryland etc), the area where the breasts, thighs and other cuts were placed on trays and plastic-wrapped for the supermarkets, as well as working in the store room, freezers and even offal duty.
It was my time working with the farming contractor when I saw the most horrific stuff. Working in the factories and never really seeing the whole truth of the story is comparatively easy if you are OK with seeing blood and guts, but working on the farms, and seeing that it's the same no matter where you go really hits hard.
The job itself was awful; low wages, hard work, long travel hours to get to some of the farms... you didn't get paid for the travelling either. The jobs were awful too. We handled all aspects of poultry factory farming, from vaccinations, farm depopulating and repopulating, stock relocation and shed cleaning and sanitising.
Vegan Tasmania: What drugs and medications were administered to the animals?
We were never explicitly told what we were dosing the chickens with. I knew there was a vaccine which protected the birds from fowl pox, and there was another very dangerous vaccine which had incredibly detrimental effects on humans. This stuff was a white liquid which was hung from the worker's neck with a ribbon, and hooked up to a big needle with a trigger. If you pumped the trigger without injecting the needle into a chicken, a squirt would come from it like a small water pistol.
Most of the time this white vaccine had something to do with egg-drop syndrome written on it, and I have no idea what this means, but sometimes it had a label on it with "CUSTOM VACCINE" written on it, along with the name of the business or farm and nothing else. So I wouldn't be surprised if we were pumping the birds up with steroids or something.
It really wouldn't surprise me at all, because we were never told anything about what we were injecting the birds with or given any formal veterinary training. Most of the employees of the contractor were from a long-term unemployed background or had been recently released from prison, and didn't particularly care what they were doing as long as their money came in on pay day.
Vegan Tasmania: How were the sheds cleaned? Who were they cleaned by and were they ever actually clean?
The shed cleaning process was a long and drawn out two weeks involving some really hard work and long days. I only cleaned the sheds at one of the Hazeldene's breeding farms at near Marong, 20 minutes or so west of Bendigo in Victoria. These sheds were the type that contained three cages stacked on top of each other, spanning the length of the shed, which was at least 50 metres, with eight rows across the shed. Fully populated, the shed contained around 25,000 chickens, and each individual cage would have around 250 hens and 25 roosters.
Once the sheds were depopulated, we would first sweep out the last twelve months' worth of dust, faeces and feathers, remove any dead birds and eggs left lying around, and spend the next week scraping all of the surfaces by hand with a paint scraper. The shed would be swept out again at least twice at the end of the job, to avoid blocking the drains with dust and faeces, and all the electric motors which ran the manure belts and grain augers would be blown out with an air compressor.
We would then spend another week pressure washing the entire shed from ceiling to floor, paying close attention to the plastic slats in the cages themselves. This was awful in winter; it was often 3 or 4 below zero and we were given very little in the way of wet weather gear. We would be soaked within half an hour of starting work and you'd stay like that all day. All this was done by a crew of around 8 people.
A few days after the shed was finished, and all the surfaces dry, I would often return to the farm with my supervisor to sanitise the shed. This was done with two different sanitisers; one was winter oil, and I'm unsure of the other one but I remember being required to wear goggles, gloves and a respirator mask when handling the product.
One of the products was used to prevent outbreaks of insect infestation in the sheds, and the other had to do with the diseases which the birds carry. But honestly, the shed wasn't that clean when we were finished. There would be remnants of faeces around the place – you could see it on the air ventilation ducts and stuck in the plastic slats which made the floor in the pens - and to be perfectly honest, I wouldn't hang around in there too long, let alone eat inside the shed, even after it was cleaned and sanitised.
Vegan Tasmania: Did your work directly influence you in any way?
Yes, mostly in negative ways. None of these jobs paid very well, especially for the kind of work we were expected to do. Working for the contractor was pretty demoralising too because the most of the workers are treated like idiots.
Also, because of the biohazard policies on chicken farms, we were usually required to take a shower and put our underwear under a UV light while we were in there, which meant you had to stand naked in a freezing cold bathroom with a concrete floor, with ten other blokes waiting for the shower, sharing tinea with the guy next to you.
If you were the last one out of the shower you never got clothes which fit you properly, and you knew that every time you went to work you would be covered in chook poo. A few times I was drenched in faeces so badly that I put my clothes in the boot of the car and drove home in my underwear. It would take a lot more than a shower to get the smell off you, and you couldn't wear those clothes to another farm.
Beside all of that, I saw some really terrible things happen to the animals while I worked with the contractor, and the one day I spent working in that hatchery. I didn't see the kill lines in the factories operating because I wasn't allowed in those areas due to cross contamination regulations. I had to kill a lot of roosters by hand; sometimes we would have to depopulate the roosters in a shed by a certain percentage, which meant we would count the roosters and ascertain how many to kill, and divide that by how many workers were there that day. Then each worker would go in and kill that specified number of birds, usually by breaking their necks.
Despite not being allowed near the kill end of the chicken processing factory (due to contamination regulations), it wasn’t hard to see exactly what went on in there. They had security cameras installed in the live hang area to try to minimise the cruelty to the animals, but often the cruelty would be at the hands (and feet) of the catchers. The meat was often covered in bruises, sometimes too bruised to use for human consumption. Apparently the birds would be kicked and thrown around, as the workers are trying to get their shift completed. The regard for the welfare of the animals is at an extreme low.
Everyone has heard of the term "spent hens" which is used in factory farming, and the reality is grim. Most people who have read a little bit of research or seen some animal liberation websites have seen pictures of hens in battery cage egg production or similar set-ups, but unfortunately the pictures I've seen don't actually represent the truth well enough. At the Hazeldene's breeding farm, the sheds are populated first with the roosters, so that they can initiate their natural territorial pecking order (sorry - no pun intended), and the hens are introduced before breeding age approximately one week later.
Twelve months later the shed is depopulated, before the usefulness of the hens runs out. By the time this happens, most of the hens are almost completely featherless, and they're covered in chemical burns and cuts. The sight of them is devastating, and to make it worse, the only times they see sunlight are the two days they spend on trucks in their abrupt lives - the first time being the day they are moved from the rearing farm to the breeding farm, the second being the final day of their lives... the trip to the slaughter house.
The hatchery was a horrible place to work, and I could only handle one day there. The day-old chicks are thrown around the place, and if they fall off the benches or conveyor belts nobody is there to catch them. They hit the floor, and if nobody sees it happening then it's fairly likely that the chick will be stood on by a worker.
If eggs hatch before the day the incubators are due to be opened, they are slow-roasted alive on the first day of their lives. The chicks are vaccinated and the sex is determined, and the males are thrown into a garbage bag, wheeled out the back, and asphyxiated with carbon dioxide. The first chicks to be thrown in the bag are dead long before that though; they suffocate under the weight of the chicks on top of them.
Debeaking was another aspect to the job with the contractor which I found really hard to deal with. I still remember the smell... it's a bit like burning hair only worse. We were told it doesn't hurt the bird, but I wondered how they would explain the birds shrieking in agony while the process was being performed. Often their tongues would be cut off, and these birds were sure to die. It would be pretty hard to eat if your tongue was cut off by a hot blade. I had to debeak on one occasion. I deliberately showed no talent for the task so I would be moved to a different job. It didn't sit well with me at all.
I guess it's pretty easy to see that working in factory farming can affect the workers in a multitude of ways. The things I've been talking about are only the things I remember right now... I bet I'll remember a bunch of stuff tomorrow that I should have told you, but it's all the same stories. It's so cruel, and it needs to stop.
Vegan Tasmania: What processes were used to kill the animals?
That depends on the factory or the farm you're working on. At the Bacon Company, the pigs were stunned then dropped into a vat of acid to singe off their hair. I assume they hit the acid before they were officially dead, because they certainly wouldn't have had their throats cut at that point. At Hazeldene's the chickens would have their heads dipped in the electrically-charged water, then a blade would sever the head while the bird was unconscious. I spoke to kill line workers on lunch breaks, and they told me a lot of birds miss the electric shock and end up mauled by the blade, because they're trying to struggle free from the shackles.
On the farms, sometimes we were told to kill chickens, sometimes we were not to do it. It was always done by breaking their necks; we would hold the bird upside down by the legs, hold the head with the other hand and sharply pull down and twist at the same time. I don't feel good about having done this in the past.
Vegan Tasmania: As someone who has worked in a chicken slaughter house and processing facility, do you believe that such a thing as "free-range" exists?
No way! Not in the sense that the industry wants us to think. True free range chickens would be given free roam wherever they want to go and the liberty to safely roost in the coop whenever they see fit, much like backyard chickens living on many properties around Australia and the world. Hazeldene's sold "free-range" chicken, and that was a lie. I remember hearing something from another worker about the chickens being fed a diet of mainly corn which changes the colour of the meat slightly. But free-range? I highly doubt it. I saw many farms and they were all pretty much the same.
Vegan Tasmania: How were the animals treated and cared for before being killed?
Poorly! There is little consideration for the welfare of the animals prior to "processing" (the word used for 'killing' in the industry), and the way they're treated can be awful. As I said earlier, the CCTV cameras in the kill line at Hazeldene's were installed because people had been caught handling the birds in a violent way, and kicking them if they struggled free. In the packing room you would see a lot of chicken meat with heavy bruising, and this is always a result of injuries before the chicken was killed. Meat will not bruise without a blood supply.
There were sprinklers installed in the ceiling in the holding area outside the kill line, which were used to keep the birds cooler on hot days. This may seem like a reasonably humane gesture at first glance, but the reality behind the move is that too many birds die from heat exhaustion before processing, and the company loses money because you can't use that animal for human consumption. There was always a DOA figure on the job processing sheets - that means Dead on Arrival. There could be a thousand birds on one truck load which didn't make it to the factory alive.
Depopulations of spent hens were even worse - because the chickens were destined to become pet food, there was even less consideration for their welfare. Many birds would die in the process, and thousands more would endure their last few hours on the way to the slaughter house carrying broken legs. The birds travel stuffed into small drawers in steel cages, and have absolutely no room to move.
The birds at the bottom of the cages would arrive at the slaughter house absolutely covered in the faeces from the birds above them. The feed lines in the shed would also be turned off 2 days before the depopulation began - and sometimes it could take two or three attempts to empty the shed. This meant that by the time the last birds were taken from the shed, they hadn't eaten for up to five days.
On my first depopulation job, we had a young girl working with us, who spent the entire 5 hours of the job in the corner of the shed in tears. She wasn't the first, and she won't be the last either.
Vegan Tasmania: On what farms did you work?
I worked on many farms, anywhere between Mildura and Portarlington. We mostly contracted for Hazeldene's and Hyline, and most of the farms were contracting work from those two companies. My crew predominantly worked on Hazeldene's breeding farms near Bendigo, and there were two other main crews who worked for the contractor.
Vegan Tasmania: How many animals were killed on an average day?
I have no idea how many pigs would be killed each day at the Bacon Company, but at Hazeldene's there was a sign on the wall as you entered the work area stating the day's orders for chicken. In winter the average kill would be between 45,000 and 50,000, with a little more on Fridays. In summer, more people eat chicken so it wouldn't be uncommon to see kill figures of 115-120,000 for the day. This was five years ago now, anything could have happened between now and then. I know the company installed a new chill system which is more efficient, so they can probably comfortably process many more than that now.
Vegan Tasmania: When did you decide to make the switch from meat-eater to vegan?
It's a recent development! I tried veganism as a teenager in the late '90s but it didn't last. This time I have no intention of going back. I know what happens in the factory farms and it's not worth it. I stopped eating meat around the beginning of October 2011, and went vegan very soon after. I figured vegetarianism was pointless – you’re still endorsing the horrors that occur within the dairy industry and the egg industry is being supported to capitalise on the exploitation of hens. In both industries, the males are useless, and only a small percentage will survive infancy to become breeding or meat stock. I don’t want this on my conscience.
It’s not only about the minimisation of cruelty in my diet either – I feel fantastic physically and I’m experiencing an abundance of energy I haven’t felt since I was a child. I no longer feel bloated after meals and I’ve lost weight without even trying. Veganism is lavish with positive side effects, and the only negative side effect I can think about is the limitation of convenience – but this is only a minor hindrance and it helps me be more organised.
I'd like to thank Vegan Tasmania for the opportunity to get this message out there. The truth needs to be told, and the more people who can spread the message, the better the outcome will be for our furry and feathered companions on this planet. They need our help - not our greed. So it really makes me wonder - if you really care about animals, then what is the point of eating them?