Meatpaper four

Migration, on Ice
How globalization kills chickens for their parts

story and photo by Malia Wollan
JUNE, 2008

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 me.

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 diesel fuel.

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 to ship.”

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. It’s easier 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 as such.

* * *

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 possibly compete?”

“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?”

Economic trade 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.

But 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!”

Inside 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 company?



“It’s cheap!”

He bundled 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 road.

Malia Wollan is a writer, radio producer, and dark meat eater based in Berkeley, California.

This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Four.

Photo: Inside the Silver Platter LTD cold storage facility in Tema, Ghana