The media just frenzied on a story about a fast food sandwich, but missed the meat in the middle.
By Will Meyer
It’s safe to say that nobody predicted the pandemonium of August 27, when the fast-food chain Popeyes ran out of its viral chicken sandwich. The company commanded lines around the block at many of its 2,400 locations. Employees, who scarcely make $10 per hour in many parts of the country, were threatened and overworked. Vigilantes pulled a gun on the staff of a Houston location after the restaurant ran out of the sandwiches.
It’s no secret brands will do just about anything to go viral. In this case, Popeyes merely had to respond to a Tweet from Chik-Fil-A asserting “love” for the “original” chicken sandwich. With its political sub-text, the spat snowballed into a meme feud for the ages, grossing millions in sales and winning approving nods from Wall Street. Not to miss out on the fun, the press heavily reported the story. From local news crews to glossy magazines, the ascent of the chicken sandwich gained the kind of media traction that advertising executives dream about. Vice called the sandwich a “Masterpiece.” The New Yorker gushed, “The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich Is Here to Save America.” The Washington Post called it a “superior sandwich.”
Like the perfect sandwich, the story seemed to have everything. The bumper cars spectacle of every fast food chain under the sun Tweeting about the superiority of their chicken sandwich, coupled with the savory crunch of Popeyes pickles. The story even had a moral villain: the anti-gay Chick-Fil-A. Countless outlets piled on the chain for funding anti-LGBTQ groups, some even going as far as pitching Popeyes as an ethical alternative to Chick-Fil-A.
“Popeyes appeals as a chicken sandwich with less overt moral compromise,” The New Yorker suggested. But as the words “less overt” implied, the controversy over Chick-Fil-A’s reactionary stances would act as a moral ceiling for the chicken sandwich feud. While food writers and web-content churners can’t be expected to be investigative reporters, it was nonetheless surprising that so many found Chik-Fil-A’s moral odiousness newsworthy, while few, if any, had anything unsavory to say about the documented abuses in Popeyes supply chain or restaurants. These include fines for egregious safety violations, child labor performed by contractors, inhumane treatment of animals, and even an alleged 13th amendment violation, otherwise known as slavery. (More about this below).
These were the other layers of this viral sandwich sitting in plain site, begging to be picked up. And nobody went near them. Popeyes’ masterpiece chicken sandwich isn’t going to save America, but the fuss around it could have reminded the country about some of the forces bringing it to ruin.
My own interest in investigative journalism began as a 12-year-old, during a summer spent reading Eric Schlosser’s iconic Fast Food Nation, which exposed abuses in the fast food industry, from the slaughterhouse to the heat lamp. Most people in media have also read this book, which raises the question of why the media made no attempt to tell a more complicated story about a trending fast food item, and settled for merely amplifying the crass marketing theatrics of brands-on-Twitter.
Few publications mentioned the workers selling the sandwiches, and the ones that did were the exception to the rule. Business Insider did some of the most comprehensive reporting on the plight of Popeye’s workers. The publication spoke to five of them spread throughout the country, including an 18-year-old from California who said, “I was working like a slave in the back prepping the buns with pickles and the spicy mayo.” He added, “My experience at Popeyes has been fine till this sandwich.” Vox also interviewed Wanda Lavender, a manager from a Milwaukee Popeyes, who testified to standing for 10-hour at a time, getting cramps, and having a staff member buckle and quit under the pressure of sandwich demand. The piece ended with Lavender saying, “To all these corporations out there: Give us our due.”
Despite the 18-year-old worker’s protest that he was working “like a slave” making sandwiches, The New Yorker’s food correspondent Helen Rosnerdid explicitly invoke slavery, mentioning it breifly in passing, before salivating once again: “American fried chicken, whose recipe was cultivated by enslaved Africans in the South, is, at its best, a food of transcendent deliciousness, an object of near holiness.” What Rosner didn’t mention was the magazine’s own reporting on Popeyes’ supply chain, namely Michael Grabell’s May 2017 exposé, “Exploitation and Abuse at the Chicken Plant,” which The New Yorker co-published with Pro Publica. There was also no mention of Reveal’s investigation into another Popeyes supplier, Simmons Foods Inc., which uses the free labor of recovering alcoholics and drug users through a sham “recovery” program called Christian Alcoholics & Addicts in Recovery. Legal experts interviewed by Reveal said the program may violate the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery (for those who have not been convicted of a crime). Since CAAIR participants had not been convicted of a crime and were being forced to work for no pay, UCLA labor law professor Noah Zatz told Reveal, “That’s a very strong 13th Amendment violation case.”
Grabell’s New Yorker piece opens with an unforgettable scene of a Guatemalan teenager, hired to clean a Case Farms chicken plant in Ohio, losing his leg to a “liver-giblet chiller.” According to medical records, the machine “literally ripped off his left leg.” Grabell’s investigation launched a comprehensive analysis of OSHA data, demonstrating that Case Farms had significantly more safety violations per worker than any other meat packer; making it amongst the most dangerous workplaces in the United States. Case Farms supplies KFC, Popeyes, and Taco Bell, as well as others. In addition to describing the abysmal conditions inside the plant with vivid detail — at one point likening the kill floor to the set of a horror movie—Grabell reports on the plight of workers outside the plant, notably Case Farms’ aggressive campaign to recruit indigenous Mayan migrants from Guatemala to live in company housing with no heat or furniture. The company went after these workers because they were political refugees, Grabell explains, often after fleeing the ravages of U.S. intervention, unable to get legal status, leave, or advocate within the workplace.
With regards to immigrants advocating for themselves in the workplace, on August 7, five days before Popeyes chicken sandwich hit stores nationwide, ICE raided seven poultry facilities in Mississippi after workers at one of the firms, Koch Foods (no relation to the Koch Brothers), won a $3.75 million dollar sexual harassment settlement. Sexual harassment is rampant in the industry, according to Oxfam white paper on gender in the poultry industry. (“Many workers have reported that supervisors walk down the line rubbing the backsides of women.”)
Other than Koch Foods, one of the seven facilities, the media didn’t report on what restaurants or chains these firms supply. Did Popeyes buy its chicken sandwich from any of these suppliers? Having dug through the local paper and looked up the companies Koch Foods, Peco Foods, PH Foods, MP Foods, and Pearl River Foods, all I could glean was that Koch supplies Burger King, Kroger and Walmart. Whether or not Popeyes buys chicken from these companies, it is clear that many in the media are more interested in the bun of a masterful sandwich than in connecting the dots between an exploitative industry and the largest ICE raids since the Bush administration.
We may never know why writers and editors at publication at Vice, The Washington Post, The New York Times, The New Yorker, and countless others decided that Chick-Fil-A’s abhorrent politics were relevant to understanding the chicken sandwich phenomenon, but alleged slavery in the supply chain was not. Again, as The New Yorker put it, “American fried chicken, whose recipe was cultivated by enslaved Africans in the South, is, at its best, a food of transcendent deliciousness, an object of near holiness.”
Production DetailsV. 1.0.0
Last edited: September 10, 2019
Author: Will Meyer
Editor: Alexander Zaitchik
Artwork: Image courtesy of Popeyes