Migration, on Ice
kills chickens for their parts
story and photo by Malia Wollan
IN A COLOSSAL COLD STORAGE WAREHOUSE in
Ghana’s port city of Tema, a boyish-faced 27-year-old
named Bilal Saffieddine had something to show me. He pointed
into the dark. “All that is poultry leg quarters,” he
said. Outside, the temperature blistered. Inside, thin men
dressed in wool scarves and heavy coats climbed over house-sized
stacks of boxed dark chicken meat. Their breath formed white
puffs of condensed air. Saffieddine is a manager and financial
controller for Silver Platter Ltd., the largest importer
of U.S. poultry products into Ghana. “Ghana is a leg
quarter country, not a whole chicken country,” he told
Like the mass of frozen chicken he
imports, Saffieddine is the product of the globalized market.
Born in Lebanon, he left for South Africa to import canned
goods after graduating from university. But he found it too
dangerous. His first day on the job, one of his truck drivers
was shot in the head by thugs. He moved to Ghana, where he
drives his Mercedes SUV without fear of highwaymen and where
the market for imported meat is booming. When Saffieddine
considers the continent, everything is big and bright — the
profits, the ships, the quantities. “Look
at how much Tyson takes to Russia!” he said. “In
Africa the numbers are still small but they’ll go up.
Guaranteed!” Indeed, more than 35.5 million pounds of
frozen chicken arrived in Ghana’s ports in 2007, nearly
70 times what Ghana imported in 1999.
A woman eating a salad at a Wendy’s
in Maine could be ingesting the breast of the same chicken
whose gizzard flavors a chicken stew in Togo and whose thigh
is served with borscht in Moscow and whose excess fat will
soon go to a ConocoPhillips refinery in Texas to make synthetic
Silver Platter Ltd., Saffieddine’s
employer, is a subsidiary of import giant the Tajideen Group,
a maze of limited-liability corporations based in Beirut and
operating throughout Africa. In Ghana, Tajideen employs over
1,000 people and has an exclusive import partnership with Tyson
Foods. Once a month, a cargo ship arrives in Tema’s port
from New Orleans carrying up to 4.4 million pounds of frozen
chicken. In normal weather conditions the trip takes between
12 and 15 days. At port, it takes Saffieddine’s swarm
of employees between five and seven days just to unload the
boxes of leg quarters from the ship.
In the global poultry market,
a nation is a dark meat country or a light meat country, a
leg quarter country or a whole chicken country. A country’s
place on the meat color spectrum is determined in large part
by economic preferences, but taste matters, too. Most Ghanaians
I spoke with said they liked the flavor and texture of dark
meat better than white meat. Africa has seen a surge in poultry
imports over the last several years since the U.S. poultry
industry took notice of the continent. “There
are a lot of hungry mouths to feed in Africa,” Toby Moore,
of the industry trade group Poultry & Egg Export Council,
told me. “And we’ve got a lot of low-cost protein
Globalization and the rising demand for animal
protein have turned the chicken into the world’s most
mobile and abundant migratory bird. This modern migration isn’t
one of whole birds, but rather of dismembered parts — wings
in one direction, breasts in another.
* * *
The hue of a chicken’s meat depends
on the type of movement the muscle makes during the bird’s
lifetime. Repeated, constant muscle motion requires more oxygen,
which is stored in a dark-colored protein called myoglobin.
Since chickens live much of their lives standing, their leg
muscles are full of myoglobin and thick with veins. A confined
bird is flightless, resulting in breast and wing meat lighter
in color, more uniform in texture, and lower in fat and calories.
to eat white meat and forget that what’s being masticated
was once an animal.
Americans and western Europeans, on the
whole, tend to favor white meat. So what happens to all those
leftover chicken legs, wings, hearts, livers, feet, and gizzards?
They go to places like Cuba, Iraq, Maldova,
and Ghana. In 2007, the United States exported $2.7 billion
in mostly dark meat poultry to countries across the globe.
Huge international corporations like Tyson Foods have created
a global food chain wherein nearly every part of a slaughtered
chicken finds a market, often many thousands of miles from
where it originally hatched from its egg. In 2007, for example,
the majority of chicken feet were shipped to China, while offal — known in layperson’s
parlance as guts — went to China, Mexico, and Jamaica.
Russia got the lion’s share of leg quarters, followed
by Lithuania, Ukraine, and Angola. In this globalized market,
a woman eating a salad at a Wendy’s in Maine could be
ingesting the breast of the same chicken whose gizzard flavors
a chicken stew in Togo and whose thigh is served with borscht
in Moscow and whose excess fat will soon go to a ConocoPhillips
refinery in Texas to make synthetic diesel fuel.
* * *
In Ghana, it is cheaper to buy frozen
Tyson chicken parts shipped across the Atlantic Ocean in
temperature-controlled cargo containers than it is to buy
a freshly slaughtered chicken from the neighbor down the
street. I located Ghana’s
meat shops by their awnings, decorated with hand-drawn pictures
of bright pink chicken parts. Inside these shops, Tyson leg
quarters, per pound, sell for approximately one-sixth the price
of Ghana-grown chicken. “With Tyson we don’t have
to advertise,” importer Saffieddine told me cheerily. “The
price promotes the product.”
But that low-cost, foreign
chicken makes many African poultry producers angry. Even in
a “leg quarter country,” chickens
hatch from eggs as whole birds and must be raised and slaughtered
* * *
William Awuku Ahiadormey is 42, with a broad
face and a rare but bright smile. He is the farm manager at
Sydals Limited, one of the largest poultry producers in Ghana.
The farm sits on a stretch of red ground surrounded by scraggly
shrubs in a tiny town called Adjie Kojo, outside Tema. Armed
men patrol the dusty road to protect the cows, sheep, and more
than 100,000 chickens from thieves.
“In America, poultry farmers
get corn and soybeans for below the cost of production. Here,
humans are competing with chickens for corn. How can Ghana
“Trade policy here
kicks Ghanaian people out of the market,” Ahiadormey
told me in his tiny office, decorated with posters featuring
chicken breeds, chicken feed, and chicken eggs. “Everybody
in Ghana who should be benefiting from the poultry industry
is going out of business.” Ahiadormey has a master’s
degree in agricultural economics from the University of Ghana.
His thesis attempted to decipher how Ghanaian poultry producers
might become competitive with foreign imports. Given his line
of work, the topic seemed as much a plea as an academic inquiry.
Ahiadormey showed me reams of data and endless PowerPoint slides
chronicling everything from high interest rates on business
loans to exorbitant feed costs. “In America, poultry
farmers get corn and soybeans for below the cost of production,” he
told me. “Here, humans are competing with chickens for
corn. How can Ghana possibly compete?”
theory suggests that when it comes to poultry, Ghanaians probably
shouldn’t even try. “The way
Ghana competes is to keep its domestic markets flexible,” said
Larry Karp, professor of agricultural and resource economics
at the University of California, Berkeley. “So Ghana
can move into the sectors where it is more efficient.” That
means that if poultry farmers can’t be efficient enough
to compete on the global free market, they should either adjust
wages and cut costs or move into another economic sector — say,
cacao production — where they can be competitive.
Ahiadormey is a chicken farmer, not a cacao farmer. Strolling
though the red dust fields between the barns, Ahiadormey relaxed
a little. He swung open the gate to a huge barn brimming with
young chicks, and cocked his head sideways in paternal fondness. “These
are local chicks from a local producer,” he said and
then stood quietly, listening to the persistent peeping, seemingly
oblivious to the reek of chicken manure.
* * *
As inevitable as the global trade in
chicken parts seems, it is actually remarkably tenuous — particularly
when factors like disease, rising grain prices, the cost
of oil, war, and climate change are thrown into the mix.
Last year it took just a single event to reveal the fragility
of the free market chicken trade.
In May 2007, the deadly
avian bird virus H5N1 broke out in Ghana, just as it had
in 2006 in other countries in West Africa and Southeast Asia.
Chickens from infected farms were incinerated. Saffieddine’s
frozen inventory remained in the warehouses. Chicken sales
dropped. People everywhere were afraid to eat poultry regardless
of its origin.
In response to bird flu fears,
the USA Poultry & Egg Export
Council launched an ongoing marketing campaign to assuage health
concerns and tout the inexpensive tastiness of the U.S. poultry
flooding the African market. The first campaign sent a man
in a brightly colored chicken costume to dance in the streets
of Accra, giving out free prizes and chicken coupons to passersby.
The promotional push was run by one of Africa’s largest
marketing agencies, Exp (whose tag line is “Activating
Demand”). Exp continues to pass out DVDs of the chicken
gyrating in the sweltering heat, wearing its USA POULTRY apron.
Inexplicably, the video’s soundtrack features the song “Barbie
Girl” by Scandinavian pop group Aqua, whose less-than-appetizing
lyrics include, “I’m a Barbie girl, in the Barbie
world! Life in plastic, it’s fantastic!”
Exp’s austere office in Accra’s suburbs,
the air conditioning blew at temperatures almost as cold as
Saffieddine’s freezer warehouse. I asked Abdul-Aziz Amankwa,
Exp’s young and impeccably dressed director, how the
dancing-chicken costume went over with Ghanaians. He laughed,
and said the company has moved on to more targeted campaigns.
The new USA poultry marketing campaign, Amankwa explained,
focuses on women and mothers, tapping into Ghana’s highly
organized women’s groups, which have long established
themselves around churches, businesses, and community centers. “The
woman plays a critical role in the consumption of chicken,” he
explained. “Mothers get their communities and families
to eat USA chicken. They become the advocates.” Exp staff
organized cook-offs and recipe competitions where women win
boxes of frozen USA chicken as prizes.
In a country where more
than 30 percent of the population lives in poverty, cheap protein
is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it provides
affordable nutrition. On the other, it eliminates livelihoods.
Ghanaians I spoke with disagree about how much foreign chicken
should be allowed into their country. But they tend to agree
that frozen dark meat chicken doesn’t taste as good as
fresh. Many refer to it as “mortuary
chicken” for the malodorous smell common during defrosting.
In Ghana, power outages are a daily ritual, and it is difficult
to keep products from partially defrosting during transport
or blackouts. One effective method for masking the smell is
to fry the chicken, a culinary trick used by the multitude
of street food vendors.
On my last day in Ghana I’d skipped
dinner. I was hungry. Leaving the fan whirring in my hotel
room, I walked out into the night, careful to avoid the raw
sewage running in a ditch along the curbside. I found 25-year-old
Nicholas Brenyah standing under a bare lightbulb frying chicken.
He told me he was the “boss” of
Christ Castle Fast Food, a plywood and corrugated metal shack
on the side of a busy road. Though it was midnight, a line
of taxi drivers and graveyard shifters waited impatiently for
their food. Brenyah’s type of business is known in Ghana
as check check—a nocturnal, makeshift stand selling fried
chicken and rice. I placed my order and watched the oil spit
and pop in the wok. I asked Brenyah what cut of chicken he
cooked, and he smiled, “Leg quarter!”
And from what
my chicken and rice in newsprint and tied it with twine. I
carried the little poultry packet toward the next check check
stand and asked the question again. The answer was the same, “Tyson!”
All the way down the
is a writer, radio
producer, and dark meat eater based in Berkeley, California.
This article originally appeared in
Meatpaper Issue Four.