Au. Note: This post is about live poultry markets, and includes descriptions and images that may be upsetting for some readers. Readers are advised to proceed at their own discretion.
The smell greets you well before you step in the door to the tiny storefront selling chickens, turkeys, ducks, and supposedly, rabbits. It's bearable, you might tell yourself, as you peer a bit anxiously into the dark, feather-strewn interior from which a cacophony of squawks occasionally erupts. Trying not to breathe too deeply, you step inside and join the queue, which moves with the briskness of a well-tuned assembly line. You're going to purchase live poultry—well, it might not be live when you leave with it, but it won't be the frozen variety from your supermarket.
New York City is home to about 80 live poultry markets, which cater to the robust immigrant community for whom live poultry is a tradition rooted in a necessity: in places where people raise their own livestock, refrigerated goods can be difficult to obtain and a needless expense. Live poultry markets have been criticized for the treatment of the animals, however, which are often packed into crates and cages for extended periods and are allegedly left without food or water or clean accommodations. And in China, at least, they have been identified as a possible source of H5N1 infections. Despite these concerns, business appeared to be fairly steady at the small shop on Rockaway Boulevard in Queens, NY, as a stream of customers filtered in and out—some albeit more squeamishly than others.
Once inside, I huddled a little anxiously next to S, trying not to think about what might be in the trickle of greenish-brown liquid flowing into the drain in the center of the floor, and trying not to get too close to the racks of cages serving as temporary housing for medium-sized white ducks, large gray speckled ducks, turkeys, roosters, white hens, and brown hens. The live poultry market we visited was small by comparison to some of the other larger establishments in the neighborhood, where you can get goats and sometimes cows and pigs and other animals. We took note of the ordering process, while we inched to the front where a man stood in a very dirty apron, heavy black boots, and gloves. "What ya havin'?" he would ask, his Trinidadian accent running the words together. And then, "What size?" (Large, medium, or small.) He would stride over to the appropriate holding cage, reach in fearlessly, and grab a protesting bird, string it up by its feet to a scale in the center of the room and note its weight, ask a few more questions, and then toss the bird down a chute leading to a back room where it would be slaughtered, plucked, roasted, cut, and bagged while the customer waited.
When I was growing up, my Trinidadian parents regularly obtained their poultry from markets like this one, but they had never taken me along. They swore that the chicken was fresher, tasted better, and that you got more for your money when compared with the supermarket variety. They also were more confident that they knew what they were getting—after all, they picked out the bird. S and I were there to pick up a chicken in honor of a long overdue visit from my mother. Standing in line, however, I wasn't so sure about the purchase. My senses were assaulted with smells and sounds that were new and shocking to me. Like many Americans, I might have subconsciously known them to be a part of livestock slaughtering process, but wouldn't otherwise have had to face them. I inched closer to S, increasingly glad I had left my coat in the car and worn my beat-up fishing sneakers as the line drew us closer to that greenish-brown fluid on the floor.
The door to the processing area swung open, and the frame of another man filled the doorway. He lumbered over to the cages and peered in. "Stand aside, Miss," he said to me, as he pulled a tray out from under the cage filled with feces and feathers. The confines of the small shop quickly filled with swirling feathers and I had just enough time to desperately wish I had thought to tie my hair up in addition to wearing those old sneakers. When he pulled a second tray out, the dust and feathers proved to be too much. I squeezed S's arm and backed up hastily to the exit. An older West Indian woman glanced at me curiously, and then watched with some amusement as I took a deep breath of air and shook myself sending a flurry of dust particles into the bright sunlight. I turned just in time to see S talking to the man in charge of weighing the birds. In a matter of seconds, a white hen was weighed and disappeared down the chute-of-no-return.
S joined me outside. "I got us a medium-sized bird," he said showing me his ticket and shrugging. This was new to him too. "Is that okay?" "I think so," I said as he picked a few feathers out of my hair. "You are covered in stuff," he said wrinkling his nose. "Come on, let's go grab the rest of the ingredients we need. And you need to shake yourself off before you get in the car later." We crossed the street to a supermarket where we soon found ourselves in the freezer section facing somewhat sparse shelves of pre-packaged drumsticks, thighs, and wings. The packages looked old and the meat they contained was oddly discolored in some places. I suppose in a neighborhood where so much poultry is sold from a live market, the frozen options aren't necessarily going to fly off of the shelves.
S and I crossed the street back to the market where we joined the small queue waiting at the door to the slaughter room. The cages looked substantially emptier and the market had a sense of a lull about it. The weighing man was gone from his post. In fact, the only person around was the cashier. Though the floor had been washed and the brownish-green liquid was gone, a bird had relieved itself in transit to the weighing post leaving splotches of feces in its wake. No one had gotten around to cleaning that up yet and customers stepped around it without looking down. The room was humid and small feathers stuck to the cages. S paid for our medium-sized bird and joined the few people waiting near the door to the back room, which would occasionally open and a worker would appear with a small plastic bag and call out a number. "What number?" he asked S on his third pass. S showed him the ticket and he disappeared to return with our bag. Still warm, we put it in the car and headed home. And I made a childhood dish, just as my mom had made it for me, for her.
Critics of these small markets are loud and focused, calling for customers to adopt a plant-based diet and decrying the treatment of the animals. Primary concerns of activist groups, such as United Poultry Concerns, are that the birds are kept in cramped dirty transport cages without access to fresh food and clean water, are handled roughly by workers, that the slaughter process is unnecessarily cruel and painful, and that live birds are sometimes sold to individuals who are beyond regulations. The latter issue may actually be exempt [pdf] from federal review, but at the live market level, federal and state jurisdiction seems a bit murky. Though a 2005 notice from the Food and Safety Inspection Service in the Federal Register [pdf] reminded poultry slaughterhouses that they are required to treat the birds as humanely as possible:
The Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is reminding all poultry slaughter establishments that, under the Poultry Products Inspection Act (PPIA) and Agency regulations, live poultry must be handled in a manner that is consistent with good commercial practices, which means they should be treated humanely. Although there is no specific federal humane handling and slaughter statute for poultry, under the PPIA, poultry products are more likely to be adulterated if, among other circumstances, they are produced from birds that have not been treated humanely, because such birds are more likely to be bruised or to die other than by slaughter.
It appears, however, that steps have been taken to ensure consistent slaughter practices, and from what I witnessed, some of the suggestions [pdf] proposed by activists have been adopted. For example, birds removed from cages were held by their feet, which was a request meant to minimize the damage to the bird.
These markets tend to thrive in urban areas with large immigrant populations, who bring this familiarity with livestock with them as they reconstruct essences of home. (For more on this, you might enjoy these two posts on the neighborhood of Jackson Heights.) They often face NIMBY arguments from local residents who aren't at all thrilled about having these small-scale slaughterhouses down the street. And there's no arguing that the smell can be difficult to escape. However, perhaps as local food movements gain more support, these establishments will gain a firmer foothold in the food supply landscape—birds sold in New York City, for example, come from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New England as opposed to Maryland (Perdue), Arkansas (Tyson), or Colorado (Pilgrim's Pride).
Live markets can reintroduce customers to the process of procuring meat, which—surprisingly—does not magically appear on grocery shelves. Meat sold in supermarkets is anonymous and impersonal. At a live market, even if you aren't specifically choosing which animal you're taking home—and you certainly can do just that: we watched one woman specifically instruct the weighing man which bird she wanted ("No, not that one. The one over there, to the side. Ayup. That's the thing, right there.")—you're making a conscious decision about what you're purchasing and you're intimately involved in the animal's demise. You, after all, have selected it for dinner. And it will feed your family, perhaps over several meals. None of that is supposed to dissuade you from consuming meat, but perhaps it makes you more aware of the foods you are choosing.
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