Is poultry processing ‘clean’?

When buying organic poultry, consumers have an image of big healthy birds that strut in the open air, are fed unadulterated food and are not contaminated with drugs. They might also imagine that these farmyard chickens are humanely dispatched and personally packaged. This is not exactly how it happens – at least with most poultry – but a survey of the process shows that with regard to this phase of the food production chain as well as the actual breeding of the birds, customers are somewhat better off choosing organic. There are few small-scale free-range poultry farms where the hands-on approach goes right through to the processing (butchering and packaging). In Greece, these small-scale units operate under prefectural licenses and so may not distribute outside their own prefecture. Larger concerns with a wider distribution network must have licenses from the state authorities, which require that the processing phase is automated. And this is where the less savory aspects of the process begin. At the moment, most organic farmers send their chickens to be butchered and packaged along with conventionally raised birds. As with all organic food processed along with that conventionally grown, the machinery is supposed to be emptied and properly cleaned before organic produce goes through it. According to Babis Lyras of Biogreco, which raises organic chickens near Sparta, what usually happens is that the organic chickens are processed first every day, before the conventionally raised chickens are processed. Biogreco has its own piecing (cutting into portions), packaging and distribution unit but until their own abattoir is ready, they still send their produce away to be butchered. Staff members go with the trucks to ensure the same birds are returned to them. As organic poultry farming becomes better established and with larger units, more farmers will be able to have their own abattoirs, but Lyras maintains that regional abattoirs are well regulated. «As organic chickens are usually processed first, they go into clean water tanks after first being anesthetized (stunned) and then killed. The hot water (from 51-55 degrees Celsius) loosens their feathers – this is in fact the ‘dirtiest’ part of the process, but if the water is changed frequently – in properly organized abattoirs the water is continually being renewed, there is no problem. In the larger abattoirs this could indeed be a problem.» The following description shows why many chicken farmers who put their own brand name on their products are keen to have as much control of the process as possible. What goes on in some abattoirs was described by journalist Felicity Lawrence who visited a commercial chicken processing unit in the UK to research her book «Not on the Label» (Penguin, 2004). «I had been smuggled into a large chicken factory by a meat hygiene inspector who was worried about standards,» Lawrence wrote. «…We were gazing into a hot-water tank into which the dead birds were being dipped at the rate of 180 a minute, to scald the skin and loosen the feathers before they went into the plucking machine… As at many factories the water was only changed once a day. It was a brown soup of feces and feather fragments…» To check that procedures are in line with European Union regulations, veterinary surgeons are supposed to be on site at all abattoirs. Tank water is supposed to be changed regularly, and replenished throughout the day. According to EU rules, chickens are transported to abattoirs in cages with enough room for 8-10 birds. They are hung upside down from the feet on a chain link cable which runs the birds through the entire process. First the birds are anesthetized in a tank of water that carries just enough electric current to knock them out. Then their throats are cut and the carcasses drained of blood. Then, still hanging from the legs, they are moved through a tank of hot water in a zig-zag motion to loosen the feathers before being passed through the plucking machine and the degutting equipment, where a vacuum sucks out the entrails. Then they are washed by jets of water and pre-frozen, a process in which their body temperature falls from 30 degrees to 5-3 degrees Celsius. The sudden drop in temperature makes them last longer in cold storage. The pre-freezing is done either by zig-zagging the carcasses through freezing water, as happens in most modern abattoirs, or by passing them through freezing air at high speed. Comparisons Stephen Hay and Carol Williams farm free-range poultry near Adelaide in South Australia and are an example of the struggle between keeping the business small-scale enough to provide quality products and humane conditions for the birds, and the demands of expanding. Every week they have 600-650 chickens for slaughtering. On that day they have four employees to help. During the rest of the week they have one person on a part-time basis, and a guard dog to keep away predators such as crows and foxes. «The way we try to raise chickens totally free-range is very hard in our climate,» Williams told Kathimerini English Edition. «Most other breeders have huge sheds and provide free-range access to their chickens for a set number of hours a day. Our sheds are only three-sided so the birds have access to pasture all the time and they supplement our feed with what they scratch around and find – at the moment, they are loving the earwigs that are in the paddock. The sheds are made of hay bales and roofing panels – when it is hot, we strip out the sides and so they are left with a supported roof to supply shade. Each time we empty the shed (to process them) we rebuild on clean ground in another part of the field. «If we were to invest more and increase production, we might then have a problem selling it all unless we exported, but in order to export, you have to automate the killing process and we don’t want to do that because you also get a better product by doing it by hand. I believe it is more humane doing it by hand as the birds are less stressed,» she said. «I won’t ever eat chicken again unless I grow it myself as I now know what goes on – especially in the processing.» Stunning with gas A new solution to the problem of slaughtering in a more humane and hygienic way is the use of gas. The Humane Slaughter Association in the UK promotes the use of Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (CAS) that kills the birds by exposure to a gas mixture that does not contain oxygen, rapidly rendering them insensitive to pain or distress. It eliminates a number of bird welfare issues associated with the use of electrical waterbath systems, including the stress of uncrating, shackling and inverting live birds, or birds missing the electrical waterbath stunner. Comparisons of different stunning techniques also show that gas mixtures give a lower incidence of broken bones at killing, therefore improving carcass quality.