Inspector Sylvester Blake sat in a 90-decibel roar, in a drizzle of blood and flying entrails, and watched perhaps his 20,000th chicken carcass of the day go by at the rate of 70 per minute.
They hung from shackles, by their ankles. Blake tapped each one rhythmically with a stainless steel wand as it crossed in front of his face.
Blake and five fellow inspectors for the Department of Agriculture are the federal presence in this Eastern Shore chicken "factory," one of two that process 50 million broilers a year for Bayshore Foods Inc. under the Shorgood label. It is only a midsized plant in a commercial juggernaut that turns out more than 10 billion pounds of chicken flesh a year nationwide.
For the last 20 years, by law, the USDA inspectors have been posted at plants such as this one to make postmortem checks of each bird and certify them disease-free and "wholesome" before their last ride to somebody's dinner table.
But this summer, some of the 2,200 slaughter inspectors are squawking about a change in their procedures, ordered by USDA, to speed up the flow of fowl.
Watching the birds go by at up to 70 birds a minute (the new national maximum), some are complaining about an assembly line affliction called "line hypnosis." They lose awareness and concentration, the birds become just a blurred yellow vision, they say, and some bad ones may slip through.
Agriculture officials counter that the speedup -- as much as 30 percent higher in some cases -- was a long-needed effort to improve government efficiency. They say USDA inspectors were actually a drag on an industry churning out one of today's rare supermarket bargains.
In one of the government's most physically tedious occupations, the inspectors had been using the same procedures for 20 years -- a hands-on postmortem of each bird, inside and out, "palpitating the tibia," searching for bruises, breast blisters, chicken cancer, contamination from bird feces and other fowl abominations.
The line speeds varied from region to region, some as low as 54 birds per minute. In any case, several inspectors on a line divided up the birds so that no single person was responsible for all of them.
Now, each inspector has less bird to cover but more birds to check -- and that, they said, is the problem.
Just minutes before they pass inspection, the noisy, distraught birds are snatched from their coops by men called hangers and strung up in shackles by their ankles. One machine cuts their throats and another strips and dumps their feathers into a smelly, damp Baked Alaska heap on a steaming floor.
At the first check point, one inspector peruses the outside of every bird with the help of a long mirror that reflects its backside.
Down the line, a machine and several women employes pull the bird's viscera out of the body cavity, draping it in an almost ceremonial "presentation" for Uncle Sam's representatives. Two more inspectors divide up the chore of checking the little organs and the cavity, each probing every second bird quickly with their fingers.
At an unspoken signal -- a nod or gesture -- from the inspector, a trimmer, or "trim girl," standing nearby cuts away bad sections of bird. Borderline cases are decided by the chief inspector, a veterinarian.
"It (the new system) is here, so I've got to live with it," said Dr. Donald Noll, the vet/inspector at the Hurlock plant. He said he has been in the business for 30 years. Inspectors are coping with the threat of line hypnosis, as plant employes do, he said, by rotating to different spots periodically. The inspectors still have the authority to slow the line if the bad birds start to pile up and they get behind.
Blake, an inspector for 16 months, doesn't mind the change so much. "I really love this job," he said. "I could have still been a truck driver for Perdue." (Frank "It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken" Perdue is an Eastern Shore chicken tycoon who has built a veritable personality cult with his multimillion dollar ad campaign.)
"It gets monotonous sometimes, for inspectors or anybody who works in here," Blake said. "But you just don't let it. You sit down, then stand up, shift your weight, anything. Or like I do, to kind of get the rhythm of the line, I tap the bird."
The plant workers wear earplugs against the roar, hard hats to protect them from falling chickens, nose masks where there are dust and feathers, rain slicks and plastic boots against the grease and blood and metal gloves to keep from slicing fingers off with knives and bone-breakers.
At any speed, the chicken-processing business is not pretty.
The inspectors who oppose the new system argue that public health is being endangered.
"There's going to be a scandal," said Jim Murphy, president of the National Joint Council of Food Inspection locals, under the American Federation of Government Employees. "This is a very competitive business, and the changes amount to the companies doing voluntary quality control."
Union spokesmen also said that, in addition to line hypnosis and eye strain, inspectors occasionally had to contend with bribe attempts by packers, and that a few of the less sturdy inspectors ended up in jail.
But officials of USDA and the broiler industry say the real problem is the union's concern that the change will rob it of potential members, plus a resistance to any change by older employes, many of whom have been eyeballing chickens for 20 years.
"The way the industry is growing, if they kept the old system, they'd have to add thousands of inspectors to the federal payroll," said William P. Reonigk of the National Broiler Council, which represents the industry.
"USDA has a manpower ceiling. To get around that, they've been using a lot of part-time and temporary employes. But they realized they'd have to do something more."
"We just don't want to be the cap on productivity," said Dr. Donald Houston, a top food safety official with the USDA, also a veterinarian. "But it's awfully difficult to bring about change in a bureaucracy."
The new system has already trimmed 200 inspectors from the payroll, though only by attrition, he said, not layoffs.
Inspectors last year condemned as "bad", about 2 percent of the young chickens they inspected, down from 4 percent 20 years ago, officials said. But that 2 percent still amounts to around 200 million pounds of chicken.
The rejected birds are sprayed with green dye (to prevent their inadvertent return to the assembly line), then ground up into mink food.
Chicken diseases are not generally communicable to humans, according to government and industry spokesmen. "There is not the public health concern with poultry that there is, say, with beef," Houston said. "We freely admit we make errors, under either system."
"You could eat chicken with breast blisters, or leukosis (chicken cancer) for the rest of your life and not be harmed, as far as we know," said Kerri Ridenour, an enthusiastic, young Broiler Council staff member and chicken partisan.
To poultry producers, an extra bird-per-minute or two can mean a difference of hundreds of thousands, or even millions (for the largest plants) of dollars in profits.
"A penny a pound to us means $1.6 million a year," said Edward Covell, president of Bayshore Foods, whose family has lived on this slice of the fertile Delmarva Peninsula since the 1600s.
Most of the region's corn and soybean crops are converted into chickens, he said, and chickens have made the region prosperous.
Through their inventive tampering with breeding and nutrition, and by tightening management controls, the producers have turned the chicken into what they call "the most efficient food conversion machine in the world." A chicken requires just two pounds of grain to grow about one pound of meat.
Industry people refer to the birds as "units," and have learned to modify them like autos. The birds on today's conveyor belt have bigger breasts than the ones grandmother killed for Sunday dinner 20 or 30 years ago, because "that's what people like," Covell said. The 1979 models have been bred with bigger feet "to carry the added weight, so they don't fall over."
Those feet themselves -- and other parts not universally loved by Americans -- are shipped off to Hong Kong, Taiwan and other Far Eastern centers of esoteric tastes.
The industry is getting a chance to crow about its success in a flock of newspaper and magazine articles and television interviews on what Reader's Digest has dubbed "Super Chicken" while other industries moan about declining productivity.
Covell's staff has provided three press tours this year and, he said, they are expecting a delegation from mainland China next.
For the inspectors and all the others who toil in chicken land, however, the conveyor belt rolls on inexorably, under the ultimate imperative of the business, as Covell put it, "sell 'em or smell 'em."