What is valuable and what people value is not necessarily the same thing. The poultry business provides a case in point.
In an internet survey of 1,885 Americans, Mintel Group found that “hormone-free” and “steroid-free” were the first and third most-appealing label claims, with one in five rating them the most compelling reasons to buy. Inasmuch as USDA bans their use with livestock, being steroid and hormone free is best viewed as minimal requirements to legally sell processed chickens.
At the other end of a spectrum of 16 attributes is “air chilled,” with only 1 percent of respondents ranking it most important. Tecumseh Poultry in Waverly, Neb., pioneered this alternative to water immersion in North America in the late 1990s. Air chilling to lower carcass temperature below 40°F is mainstream in Europe, but only a handful of U.S. poultry processors use it. The first to follow Tecumseh Poultry was Farmer’s Pride, the Fredericksburg, Pa., firm that goes to market as Bell & Evans.
I visited company owner Scott Sechler when he commissioned his air-chill system in 2005. He's a shrewd businessman who almost single-handedly sustained a handful of independent Pennsylvania hatcheries at a time when vertical integration was wiping out independent hatcheries elsewhere. Sechler was as passionate about the deficiencies of industrial poultry practices as he was about air chilling, a technology he had set his sights on 20 years earlier.
Peracetic acid is gradually replacing chlorine in immersion chillers, although chlorine was the standard antimicrobial at that time. As they float and bob through a water flume, the carcasses swap blood and bacteria, Sechler explained. They also act as sponges, soaking up the communal microbes and residual chlorine, adding 6-8 percent of body weight. The euphemism for water logging is yield improvement, and what processor doesn’t want that?
Bell & Evans’ air chiller was basically a large refrigerated space with a trolley system that conveyed the carcasses. Sechler estimated refrigeration added a nickel a pound to his production costs. On the other hand, fewer spoilage organisms on carcasses meant a significant extension in refrigerated shelf life (and better taste) and a reduction in return rates. Besides, his poultry retailed for twice the going price, more than enough to offset refrigeration costs and the “lost” yield.
The company’s latest technology investment is in an advanced hatchery that started breeding chicks for Pennsylvania farms in August. The $40-million, 160,000-sq.-ft. facility initially will produce 1.6 million future broilers a week, ramping up to 2.8 million at full capacity. It will be the largest hatchery of its kind for a couple of months, after which an Australian installation, which is twice as big, will come on line.
Like the air-chill system, it arrived in Fredericksburg from the Netherlands. HatchTech and Viscon Group collaborated on the installation. The key contribution from Viscon is a heartbeat detector that replaces the conventional candling systems used to evaluate the viability of eggs to be incubated. If the heart isn’t beating, the egg is rejected.
The manufacturer claims a 100 percent viability rate for accepted eggs. With candling systems, 7-8 percent of the approved eggs never hatch. The bad ones also have a tendency to explode in the incubator, spewing bacteria onto the viable eggs.
The bigger breakthrough is in the handling of newborns. The grates holding the eggs include openings where the newly hatched drop through to a lower level where food and water allows them to nourish on something other than the yolk sack. Eight years of research determined that immediate access to food results in larger, healthier and less-stressed chickens than if they have to wait 36-72 hours between the time the first chicks hatch and the flock arrives at the barn, according to Erik Helmink, HatchTech Group’s marketing director.
He cites the experience of Synergy Agri Group, a Nova Scotia organization that pegged payback on the system at two years, thanks in part to 11 percent higher broiler weights, 4 percent less feed intake and a reduction in farm-level morbidity rates from 5 percent to less than 2 percent.
Bell & Evans is pitching the hatchery as an advance in humane handling. It’s a simple message that should resonate with the 10 percent of Mintel respondents who rated “humanely raised” as the most important attribute. But the simple fact is that early feeding is good business, which is why poultry companies in Europe and America are flocking to HatchTech.