Meet Your Meat: The Benefits of Small Scale Poultry Processing
The King family wants to give you an honest look at where your meat comes from, how it’s raised and how it’s butchered. Most of the time, we have no idea where our rotisserie chicken dinner comes from, or what kind of life the bird had—and if we DID know, we’d wish we didn’t. It doesn’t have to be this way.
Luckily, there are an increasing number of small farms, such as Freedom Farms, that raise and process their birds humanely. Freedom Farms wants you to know where your food comes from so you can make informed choices for yourself and your family.
It’s not quite seven o’clock in the morning, and it’s time to slaughter chickens at Freedom Farms. This morning, the Kings will butcher 75 chickens and a few turkeys. Meanwhile, a typical poultry slaughtering and processing facility currently processes over 20,000 birds on a daily basis. The American poultry industry is huge. The average American consumes 81.4 pounds of chicken per year. In order to meet this demand, the poultry industry produced 37.7 billion pounds of chicken in 2011. For the poultry industry, this pace of production isn’t fast enough.
This spring, the USDA announced a controversial plan to allow the speed of processing lines to increase from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute. At the same time, instead of four on-site USDA inspectors making sure the process is executed cleanly, each factory processing facility would only be required to keep one inspector on-site. At this speed, a kill line could process 10,000 chickens in one hour. Instead of four inspectors walking the line searching for bruises, feces, or blood on the birds, all the birds on the line will be preemptively treated with chlorinated water and antimicrobial chemicals.
The one remaining inspector will then randomly choose 20-80 birds per shift to inspect. These rule changes have been protested by worker and consumer rights groups, but are slated to take effect soon.
It is unlikely that the proposed changes to USDA regulations will improve the quality of chickens produced by factory farms and large-scale slaughtering facilities. According to recent studies by the FDA, 53% of the raw chicken available on supermarket shelves contained antibiotic-resistant E. coli, and 9% were tainted with antibiotic-resistant salmonella. The regulations will also likely prove dangerous for poultry plant workers, many of whom are already struggling with respiratory issues, repetitive stress injuries, and chemical burns. There are also frequent reports from the poultry industry labor force (largely composed of minority and immigrant workers) of employee abuse, sexual harassment, arbitrary pay cuts, and lack of adequate medical care for job-related injuries. [Note: In July, 2014 the proposal was dropped.]
Joe King wants his customer to know where their Freedom Farms chickens come from, and how they die. “These birds are our pride,” he says. “They are in their prime. They’re grass fed, and they’re tender. They have a great life and everybody loves to see them while they’re alive and see how we raise them, but the way we kill them is a big part of it, too. People need to take pride in what they eat, and in knowing where their food comes from. We are staunchly against cruelty to animals. We want our chickens to have a healthy, happy life. They have one bad day, whereas many of the chickens you buy at the grocery store have a miserable, tortured life.”
Butchering chickens for the family meal is a tradition in the King family. “I’ve done this since I was a little boy,” Pete King says. “I’d hold the wings or feet and Dad would cut the head off and we’d scald them and pluck them by hand. Now we have a scalder and a plucker and it’s much more efficient. It’s a lot easier, and a lot faster.”
This morning, Pete is ready to start butchering. There are white plastic crates full of chickens stacked up next to the butchering line. The chickens are quiet. “We crated them up last night,” says Pete. “We like to give them one last night on the pasture. They’re outside in crates for the night, and then we bring them up in the morning.”
Pete gestures to his brother Sam to start bringing the birds over to the row of silver metal killing cones, where they cut the necks of the birds and let the blood drain from their bodies.
After the birds have passed, the next stop is the scalding station, where the chickens are immersed in hot water to loosen their feathers. According to Pete, “A good scald is everything.” Too hot and the skin starts to tear, too cool and the rest of the crew will spend the next 8 hours plucking stubborn feathers off the chickens. Today, there is a new propane fired scalder, and the temperature is perfect. The birds are swirled gently in the hot water and move on to the mechanical plucker. The plucker is a circular drum with rubber fingers that quickly and effectively removes almost all of the feathers on the chicken. After the plucker, the birds are laid out on the stainless steel table for finishing.
Pete is in charge here. He explains, “It’s important that they are as clean as possible. Cleanliness is next to godliness. These chickens are raised clean, and we want to finish them clean, too. We sell directly to the consumer, and we are directly responsible for making sure these chickens are safe to eat.” The rest of the crew follows his lead. There are water nozzles hanging above the table to rinse the chickens and keep the work surface clean. Pinfeathers that the plucker missed are picked clean, the heads and feet are taken off of the birds, and the intestines and organs are removed. After Pete gives the final inspection and approval, the finished birds are immersed in ice water and chilled to the bone. Once cooled, they are ready to be vacuum sealed and sold, or cooked at the café. Some of them will definitely end up at the King family table.
The Kings are happy to eat and sell their chickens. As Joe King says, “At the end of the day, all meat birds die. This is the natural way. This is the healthy, humane way. Food always tastes best to me when I know where it comes from, and nothing is better on the table than the animals we actually raise and kill ourselves.”
This article was originally published in the July 2013 issue of Freedom Farms Magazine.