The chicks grow into chickens, then the day of motion arrives: "Chicken catchers" -- men who round up flocks by hand -- wade into the long, low houses where the birds are raised. The "houseman" erects a temporary pen with a plastic tarp, then tightens the perimeter as the catchers move in. They capture as many as 50,000 chickens in an 8- to 12-hour shift, lifting three and four at a time in each hand, cramming the birds into steel cages known as "the hole."
Forklifts place the cages on flatbed trucks, which rumble off to the slaughterhouses. Then forklifts load them onto conveyor belts rolling into the plants.
In a dark chamber inside, workers hang the birds on metal hooks, upside down by their feet. Down the line they roll, hundreds of birds a minute. Bursts of electricity stun them, then the conveyor line runs necks past blades for the kill. Blood drips into tanks the size of wading pools.
The line plunges into foamy hot water, loosening and removing feathers, before the birds head into a gantlet of machinery and blades. One device removes feet before workers re-hang the birds by their drumsticks. Another machine thrusts a cylinder into cavities, reaching through 16 birds at a time, emerging with the guts in one grab.
All through the plants, workers hose down stainless steel sinks, counter tops and floors, redirecting fat, feathers and meat scraps into bloody channels coursing beneath steel grates in the floor. Torrents of water shoot through the cavities of chickens moving down the line.
Hundreds of people work within these cold, damp walls, yet their voices cannot be heard above the din of roaring machinery and whooshing water. The floors glisten with moisture and grease as water rains from everything.
Perdue's rendering plant in Accomac, Va., daily processes the leftovers from all five of its peninsula slaughterhouses. Inside a dank concrete room the size of an airplane hangar, guts, condemned birds and heads drop from pipes in the ceiling, landing with a splash into a hopper holding 270,000 pounds -- a viscous, bloody stew. In another room, three rocket-shaped cookers stretch skyward, boiling the mixture down to its essence. Greasy dust cakes the walls. A sour odor permeates every corner.
The water flowing through slaughterhouses and rendering plants passes through treatment tanks much like public sewer works, then spills into creeks and rivers, still containing some pollution. Despite increasingly strict environmental rules, some today are putting out more pollution than ever, because they are killing more birds and using more water.
Where once slaughterhouses simply killed and dressed chickens and then sent them to market whole, the modern penchant for convenience has placed a premium on boneless, skinless breast, marinated chicken, custom-size nuggets. More processing steps require more water, straining the capacity of the plants to catch pollution before it spills into creeks.
Meanwhile, tougher food safety standards have forced slaughterhouses to add more washers to clean away waste more intensively, further swelling the rivers washing through plants.
But increased water use is only part of the strain on the plants: More meat is moving down the line, leaving more waste to clean, before the plants release their waste water into the rivers.
A decade ago, Darling International's rendering plant in Linkwood, Md., processed 4 million to 5 million pounds of chicken guts, heads, feathers and blood a week, according to company officials. By 1997, the plant was weekly taking in some 14 million pounds. The waste water treatment works bent under the strain: Darling consistently put out more pollution than its Maryland permit allowed, resulting in a state enforcement action that forced the company to upgrade the plant.
"The plant as designed was not sized to handle the load it's receiving from the poultry processing plants," said Darling's vice president for environmental affairs, William R. McMurtry.
"The stuff's got to go somewhere."