Labourers at the one of the world’s largest egg factories arrived at the plant in Rembrandt, Iowa, early one morning in March to discover they were about to work themselves out of a job.
As they gathered at the huge barns housing stacks of caged hens, the workers were told to forget about their usual routine of collecting eggs and feeding the birds. Overnight, the factory had begun slaughtering more than 5 million chickens using a gruesome killing method after detecting a single case of avian influenza. Even supervisors were assigned to the arduous task of dragging dead hens out of packed cages as Rembrandt Enterprises raced to contain the spread of the virus, amid the largest bird flu outbreak in the US in seven years.
The culling has been repeated at chicken and turkey farms across Iowa and 28 other states from Maine to Utah. More than 22m birds have been killed in an attempt to contain the outbreak – the majority in Iowa, the US’s biggest producer of eggs. The slaughter of 5.3m hens at Rembrandt is the largest culling at any factory farm in the country.
Workers spent nearly a month pulling the dead poultry from the cages and dumping them in carts before they were piled high in nearby fields and buried in huge pits. The killing over, about 250 people were summarily thrown out of work with just a few dozen skeleton staff remaining.
In the weeks that followed, animal rights protesters targeted Rembrandt’s billionaire owner, Glen Taylor, over the cull, including disrupting games played by the professional basketball team he owns, the Minnesota Timberwolves. But few voices have been raised in support of Rembrandt’s workers, some of them undocumented migrants.
Others fired from the plant contrast the seriousness with which the bird flu outbreak has been taken by Rembrandt’s management to what they describe as the company’s lax approach to the threat to workers from Covid, as it swept through factory farms and slaughterhouses in Iowa and elsewhere.
“Right now everybody’s worried about the chickens,” said Oscar Garcia, a former supervisor at the plant. “We get it: it was really inhumane the way they killed them. But chickens are chickens, right? People worked in those barns pulling out dead birds in terrible conditions, faeces everywhere, doing 12- or 14-hour days.