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How US Taxpayers Got Plucked in Iraq

The tale of a failed $2.5 million chicken processing plant, just one example of US reconstruction madness in the Middle East.

| Tue Oct. 4, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
This chicken is stunned, too.

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Very few people outside the agricultural world know that if the rooster in a flock dies the hens will continue to produce fertile eggs for up to four weeks because "sperm nests," located in the ovary ducts of hens, collect and store sperm as a survival mechanism to ensure fertile eggs even after the male is gone. I had to know this as part of my role in the reconstruction of Iraq.

Like learning that Baghdad produced 8,000 tons of trash every day, who could have imagined when we invaded Iraq that such information would be important to the Global War on Terror? If I were to meet George W., I would tell him this by way of suggesting that he did not know what he was getting the country into.

I would also invite the former president along to visit a chicken-processing plant built with your tax dollars and overseen by my ePRT (embedded Provincial Reconstruction Team). We really bought into the chicken idea and spent like drunken sailors on shore leave to prove it. In this case, the price was $2.58 million for the facility.

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The first indication this was all chicken shit was the smell as we arrived at the plant with a group of Embassy friends on a field trip. The odor that greeted us when we walked into what should have been the chicken-killing fields of Iraq was fresh paint. There was no evidence of chicken killing as we walked past a line of refrigerated coolers.

When we opened one fridge door, expecting to see chickens chilling, we found instead old buckets of paint. Our guide quickly noted that the plant had purchased 25 chickens that morning specifically to kill for us and to feature in a video on the glories of the new plant. This was good news, a 100 percent jump in productivity from previous days, when the plant killed no chickens at all.

 

Investing in a Tramway of Chicken Death

The first step in Iraqi chicken killing was remarkably old. The plant had a small window, actually the single window in the whole place, that faced toward a parking lot and, way beyond that, Mecca. A sad, skinny man pulled a chicken out of a wire cage, showed it the parking lot, and then cut off its head.

The man continued to grab, point, and cut 25 times. Soon 25 heads accumulated at his feet. The sharply bright red blood began to pool on the floor, floating the heads. It was enough to turn you vegan on the spot, swearing never to eat anything substantive enough to cast a shadow. The slasher did not appear to like or dislike his work. He looked bored. I kept expecting him to pull a carny sideshow grin or wave a chicken head at us, but he killed the chickens and then walked out. This appeared to be the extent of his job.

Once the executioner was done, the few other workers present started up the chicken-processing machinery, a long traveling belt with hooks to transport the chickens to and through the various processing stations, like the ultimate adventure ride. But instead of passing Cinderella's castle and Tomorrowland, the tramway stopped at the boiler, the defeatherer, and the leg saw.

First, it paused in front of an employee who took a dead chicken and hung it by its feet on a hook, launching it on its journey to the next station, where it was sprayed with pressurized steam. This loosened the feathers before the belt transported the carcasses to spinning brushes, like a car wash, that knocked the feathers off. Fluff and chicken water flew everywhere.

One employee stood nearby picking up the birds knocked by the brushes to the floor. The man was showered with water and had feathers stuck to his beard. The tramway then guided the chickens up and over to the foot-cutting station, which generated a lot of bone dust, making breathing in the area unpleasant.

The feet continued on the tramway sans torso, ultimately to be plucked off and thrown away by another man who got out of bed knowing that was what he would do with his day. The carcass itself fell into a large stainless steel tub, where someone with a long knife gutted it, slid the entrails down a drain hole, and pushed the body over to the final station, where a worker wrapped it in plastic. The process overall sounded like something from Satan's kitchen, grinding, squeaking, and squealing in a helluva racket.

According to our press release, the key to the project was "market research which indicated Iraqis would be willing to pay a premium for fresh, halal-certified chicken, a market distinct from the cheaper imported frozen chicken found on Iraqi store shelves." The only problem was that no one actually did any market research.

In 2010, most Iraqis ate frozen chicken imported from Brazil. Those crafty Brazilians at least labeled the chicken as halal, and you could buy a kilo of the stuff for about 2,200 dinars ($1.88). Because Iraq did not grow whatever chickens ate, feed had to be imported, raising the price of local chicken. A live bird in the market went for about 3,000 dinars, while chicken from our plant, where we had to pay for the feed plus the workers and who knew what else, cost over 4,000 dinars, more than the already expensive live variety and almost double the price of cheap frozen imports.

With the fresh-chicken niche market satisfied by the live birds you killed yourself at home and our processed chicken too expensive, our poultry plant stayed idle; it could not afford to process any chicken. There was no unfulfilled market for the fresh halal birds we processed. Nobody seemed to have checked into this before we laid out our $2.58 million.

The US Department of Agriculture representative from Baghdad visiting the plant with us said the solution was to spend more money: $20,000 to pay a contractor to get license plates for the four Hyundai trucks outside in the parking lot facing Mecca. Our initial grant did not include licensing the vehicles we bought. The trucks, he hoped, would someday transport chicken to somewhere there might be an actual market.

Another Embassy colleague repeated the line that the plant was designed to create jobs in an area of chronic unemployment, which was good news for the chicken slasher but otherwise not much help. If employment was indeed the goal, why have an automated plant with the tramway of chicken death? Instead, 50 guys doing all the work by hand seemed like a better idea. A chubby third Embassy person who came to the plant for the day, huffing and puffing in body armor, said the goal was to put more protein into the food chain, which might have been an argument for a tofu factory or a White Castle.

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