The Hamlet Factory Fire and the Political Economy of Poultry in the Twentieth Century
Dixon, Patrick Michael
My dissertation addresses the production and consumption of poultry in the United States in the twentieth century. The project combines the fields of labor and economic development with studies of food and cultural history. In examining the transition from a pastoral activity primarily concerned with egg production at the turn of the 1900s to a colossal industry that remained centered in the provinces, it explains two transitions at the center of the American diet; the growing shift from red to white meats as the primary form of protein, and the rise of processed convenience foods.The dissertation is framed by events at the Imperial Foods poultry company in Hamlet, North Carolina where in 1991 a deadly fire claimed the lives of twenty-five workers, the majority of whom were African-American women. Unlike previous works on the poultry industry that have focused primarily upon the migration of workers in a globalized economy, this study takes a longer view of historical developments and the changing nature of consumer tastes and industrial production. I argue that Wendy’s and PepsiCo were instrumental in shaping a fast food economy based upon slim profit margins, a rapid turnover of goods, and offering ‘value’ to customers at highly competitive prices.When Imperial Foods was engulfed in flames the struggling company was attempting to keep pace with food processing giants who had spent the previous three decades pursuing an aggressive strategy of expansion, buy-outs, and vertical integration, creating economies of scale with which medium-sized firms could no longer compete. In the wake of the fire legislators vowed ‘never again.’ However, the modest penalties imposed by the state-run Occupational Safety and Health Administration meant the likelihood of effectively protecting poultry workers from safety violations had always been improbable. This was only one of the limitations of a regulatory system that stood in opposition to many of the key objectives of the politically more powerful United States Department of Agriculture. As the short history of Imperial Foods makes clear, by the 1990s poultry workers and even many factory owners themselves were subject to economic forces that were well beyond their control.
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