For seven years, between 2000 and 2006, Emanuelle Mercado left the Chicago loop office high rise with a knot in his stomach. But the stress of his day was not typical of what most of us experience at work. After analyzing countless claims from clients in the commercial poultry industry, the images and words describing these horrific cases left an indelible scar on his psyche.
Mercado breathes many sighs of relief as he recounts this part of his life as an insurance adjuster for factory farms. Finally, he is free from the sense of dread that permeated his life at this time and free of his confidentiality agreement that swore him to secrecy. While the company he worked for shall remain anonymous, the harrowing story of his unusual exposure to this largely unseen world follows.
The insurer that Mercado worked for specialized in high risk and hazard coverage. At a certain point, the firm began to develop poultry farm clients. Many of them were subsidiaries of the world’s largest poultry corporations, Tyson and Purdue. And they were required to follow these corporation’s strict operational guidelines. Prior to his resignation, his employer had accumulated some 3,000 poultry farm clients.
To “qualify” a potential client, Mercado would ask a lot of questions about the conditions under which chickens were raised at their facilities, such as the construction of the housing and the number of birds per square feet. In some cases, birds were provided only 3/4 foot per bird. And in most cases birds spent their entire short lives in dimly lit warehouses with serious air quality problems.
The underwriting process for verifying and fact-checking what these clients reported to him were contracted out to what is known in the industry as “loss control services,” hired by the insurer to go onsite to the chicken facilities and inspect them. Loss control provide detailed reports (with photos), narratives, and checklists providing the underwriter all the information needed to assess the business.
In some cases loss control was asked to take air samples a mile or two away from the farms and “use their nose” to determine if there were signs of ammonia odor from that distance. The level of ammonia in the air from this distance was an early indicator of the conditions under which the birds on these farms were housed. High levels of ammonia accumulating from fecal dust in the air in an around these facilities meant higher risk for the insurer. Bronchial asthma and other often fatal respiratory infections afflict chickens exposed to high levels of ammonia. Workers also start to develop similar symptoms. Chickens are customarily administered high doses of antibiotic to fight off diseases induced by adverse air quality.
Mercado saw a lot of claims comes in from these farms. One such claim described the collapse of the roof of a facility housing 15,000 birds during a wind storm. All of the birds were trapped inside during the incident and died a frightful death. Many claims declared mass losses of birds due to illness and were accompanied by photos of live and dead birds sharing the same cages as well as huge mounds of dead birds. Yet another claim describes the loss of chickens attacked and killed by rats that had invaded the coop.
“If these were humans instead of chickens,” says Mercado, “people would call this genocide or worse. I was in awe how people could treat animals this way.”
During his seven years on the job, Mercado saw a lot of these farms have their policies terminated, their facilities shut down by regulators and legal action taken against them for violating clean air and water laws.
When asked about what finally prompted him to leave after seven years, Mercado explains: “I remember coming home once in a while feeling beaten and I began hating my job. I realized I couldn’t do it anymore.”
As a result of this experience, Mercado adopted a vegan diet and lifestyle and developed a strong sense of compassion for these intelligent and sentient birds as well as all animals. He continues his career in the insurance industry today.