An incredible look (for me) inside poultry farming on Maryland's Eastern Shore by author and chicken farmer, Tom Horton:
We re going to see Elvis. I'm following geneticist David Pollock down a country road on Maryland s lower Eastern Shore where an unmarked turnoff leads to a compound locked behind sturdy fences and surrounded by forested swamps. We strip, shower, shampoo, and don sanitized clothing, then slosh through a long pan of disinfectant before approaching the inner sanctum. Lusty cock-a-doodling erupts as we enter the domain of some of the biggest chickens you ll never see: The great, state-of-the-art roosters sequestered here are too valuable ever to leave. They are the source, the future of all chicken from tandoori to Kentucky Fried, barbecue to coq au vin.Each rooster struts in his own pen, shared with eight hens which he must mount at least 40 times a week to produce a flow of fertile eggs. Should he falter, a pen full of reserve roosters awaits. The laggard stud is euthanized and incinerated on site we can t risk competing poultry companies getting his elite genes, Pollock explains. ...
... Lou Ann can raise a chicken nowadays to more than four pounds, twice the weight of Cecile Steele's [in early 19th century], in 42 days versus 116 back then and on half the feed.
For the flock of 90,000 chickens that represented nearly a sixth of her work year, she [farmer, Lou Ann Riely] made around $11,000, compared with maybe $26,000 had she been the top grower that week. What happened? The flock before was a near record setter, she says.
... in 1925, Japanese researcher Kiyoshi Masui proved that male chicks did have a copulatory eminence, though a mighty subtle one. To recognize it you had to look hard and recognize a lot of subtle variations. By 1938 the American Chick Sexing Association was operating training schools, though the demanding profession was to remain mostly with Asians (Japanese sexers were given special releases from WWII internment camps).
Lou Ann's flock undergoes no such indignity of having its hind ends probed. Most of today s birds, geneticist David Pollock explains, are bred to exhibit uneven wingtip feathers in females and even ones in males. Sexers today work faster and cheaper. The poultry companies can tell you precisely how much cheaper 4½ pennies per chick to sex the old way versus just seven-tenths of a cent with feather sexing.
... The crew at Lou Ann's are total pros; stooping, plunging gloved hands deep into white drifts of massed chickens, arising magically in a few seconds with four struggling birds head-down in each hand. A house man thumps the walls and shakes stones inside a Clorox jug to keep the panicky chickens from mobbing up and smothering.
The job's gotten more efficient and easier on man and chicken since I did it 40 years ago. Modern houses can be kept much more ventilated and closed so daylight doesn't make the birds go bonkers. And you can drive machinery through today s big houses. We used to carry our chickens to a truck outside, where the birds were roughly handed up and jammed into wooden coops. Now a forklift follows the catchers, bringing and removing cages into which they slide the birds. The crew of seven catchers fills a tractor-trailer with 7,000 chickens every 45 minutes. They will pick up 40,000 to 60,000 chickens before their shift ends.
Today's catchers are better trained than we were and constantly evaluated to minimize bruising and breakage among the chickens they catch. But for labor, economic, and animal-welfare reasons, the Holy Grail for poultry companies remains a machine that can automate catching to match most other phases of the industry. Perdue tried years ago, but the machines couldn't take it, couldn't keep up . . . the dust, the corrosion, breakdowns; our crew'd catch two loads to every one for the machine, recalls David Marshall, 42, a compact man with the effortlessly firm handshake that comes from picking up 2 million chickens a year for the last 25 years. Perdue says it is constantly testing new mechanized options. ...
The birds, still in cages from the truck, enter a chamber dimly lit with red lamps to keep them as calm as possible. Workers, who get premium pay for this job, hang them upside down by their feet in shackles on a moving line, which pulls them into a warm-water bath where a mild electrical current stuns them. An auto-killing apparatus positions the moving, unconscious birds for a precise cut to the neck that opens veins and arteries to encourage blood drain but leaves the head on, spinal cord intact. This minimizes pain and struggling, veterinarians say.
Slaughter systems continue to improve. A gas process used in Europe and by one small US company renders chickens unconscious before they are hung for killing. It s almost the consensus among poultry scientists that this results in better welfare, says Paul Shapiro of the Humane Society of the United States, which is suing to expand the use of gas.
After a three-minute scald water hot enough to loosen feathers but not to blanch their skin the dead chickens enter the ear-splitting, steamy confines of the picking room. Seldom seen but key to the whole operation, it reminds one of the boiler room in the bowels of a great ship.
Two attendants constantly adjust long rows of roaring, rattling machines, each big as a pickup truck. These lash the chickens from hocks (ankles) to neck with thousands of corrugated rubber fingers, defeathering even the hardest-to-reach crevices with improbable delicacy. Twin lines of glistening, golden chickens whiz out into the main plant at a bird every half a second. A machine slices them off the line, cutting cleanly through their hocks, then automatically rehanging the birds by their drumsticks on another moving line. Long rows of golden feet march off in another direction, bound for China as chicken paws, a chewy snack.
Since the 1950s the processing industry talked about its automated plants, and these were marvels in comparison with the old New York dressed chickens sent to market with heads, feet, and guts all intact. But until the 1980s, most plants just had moving lines of chickens along which dozens and dozens of workers still performed by hand every minute job slitting throats, sucking lungs, scooping viscera, extracting crops and windpipes, snipping off such marketable organs as hearts, livers, gizzards; carving wings, drumsticks, breasts, backs. No more. About 80 percent fewer workers now staff the lines, and most of them are just backing up machines, says Rod Flagg, who manages Purdue s Georgetown, Delaware, plant. In the embrace of all this latest machinery of evisceration and disassembly, the chickens at times appear Borglike, half flesh, half steel.
Quality control, however, gets almost obsessive human attention in comparison with the operations I knew as a kid we d soak chickens overnight in ice water to disguise bruises. Each eviscerated chicken glides past multiple inspectors, its brightly colored entrails moving with it on a separate belt. The birds are checked for bruises, cuts, color, and other imperfections, while their viscera are examined for disease. When Perdue is running its premier Oven Stuffer Roasters through the plant, only about half are deemed good-looking enough to sell whole the rest are sold as parts. In one corner of the plant is a group of women in red hats, over whom Flagg says I have absolutely no control. . . don t even talk to them. They work for corporate quality assurance and are authorized to pull chicken products from all sectors of the plant, grading them from a thick book of specs for everything from fat scraps in the meat to unattractive wrapping. The women post results continually on a big bulletin board in full view of the plant. Supervisors are expected to watch it and make immediate corrections.
More in the article which first appeared in Washingtonian Magazine, Sept 2006.