If you’ve ever been to a chicken-harvesting plant, the first thing you notice when you visit the receiving area of the Perdue facility in Milford, Del., is ... nothing.
No squawking. No feathers on the floor. Nothing but dim lighting and silence. If it weren’t for the normal smell of live animals, you’d have no idea that live chickens were even present, unless you peered through the small openings in the containers brought in by a special trailer.
It’s part of the Atlas chicken-harvesting system from Marel that Perdue installed at the plant about two years ago. It makes receiving and preparing the live chickens more efficient – and when you process 1.2 million of them a week, you’re always looking to boost efficiency.
The 200,000-sq.-ft. Milford plant plays a star role in Perdue’s animal husbandry program. Most of its output is for retail, and most of that is cuts in trays. Responding to shifts in demand from trade customers requires the kind of flexibility that served plant managers in good stead when the pandemic hit.
“There’s a lot of work that goes on behind the scenes to tell us what form, what tray goes where on what day,” says Dean Walston, director of operations at the Milford plant.
Every morning and afternoon, plant leadership is on the phone with planners at corporate, deciding what’s going to be produced and packaged that day and the next. “They know there’s 1.2 million birds – based on what the customers need today, this is the form we need to put them in. And oh, by the way, that may change today,” Walston says. “For example, say a customer says, ‘I changed my mind. Rather than 200 cases today, I need 400.’ So we shift gears and say, 'How are we going to make that happen?' ”
To a certain extent, broad shifts in demand are – or were – predictable. A surprising number of them center on sports: football and baseball seasons. With football, there’s a big demand for chicken wings, for both foodservice and home consumption. Baseball means the start of grilling season, which increases the demand for wings, thighs and drumsticks – the dark meat that grills well.
“We’ve got some good historical information that lets us know what we need to plan for, and that’s how we’re able to make sure that we plan properly,” says Kyle Bolin, senior vice president of live production and operations at Perdue.
Those plans can change very quickly. “It’s easy for [trade customers] to pick up the phone and say I’ve got additional orders,” Bolin says. “Consumer demands, big football game, family activities, those kinds of things, can cause spikes in demand. Just as soon as those spikes happen, they tend to fall off. So that can change the channel we put it into – retail, foodservice, those sorts of things, which can change depending the day of the week, even the time of the month.”
The big blow
This kind of flexibility stood the plant in good stead when it came time to deal with the pandemic. Asked when was the biggest single production disruption the plant had to deal with, Bolin evoked some rueful laughter from a couple of colleagues with the reply: “About seven months ago.”
Perdue Operations at a Glance
The Milford, Del., plant is one of 21 facilities operated by Perdue Farms, which includes Perdue Foods, the unit that produces meat and poultry products for retail and foodservice. These include 12 harvest facilities, eight cooking operations and one further-processing facility. Plus, there are 16 hatcheries and 13 feed mills.
Collectively, the plants process an estimated 12.8 million birds a week into than 60 million lbs. of ready-to-cook and value-added chicken. In addition, Perdue owns specialty brands, like Niman Ranch and Panorama, that produce high-end red meat cuts and products, comprising one harvest plant and one further-processing facility.
The cooking facilities produce ready-to-eat products like frozen cooked chicken nuggets, wings, tenders or other parts, for retail or foodservice. Cooked products have some of the best margins in Perdue’s portfolio and are seen as having high growth potential. The facilities producing those products are located in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia.
Companywide, food production is overseen by three operations senior vice presidents: Tom Lee, Lester Gray and Kyle Bolin. In most plants, managers consult with corporate planners once or more a day to schedule production, based on trade demand and other factors.
But adjusting to the pandemic entailed more than just shifting SKUs and increasing retail production. The meat and poultry industry got hit the hardest of all food industry sectors. Two employees at Milford tested positive for COVID-19 in March, leading Perdue to close the plant on March 30 and dedicate an entire day to sanitizing. Perdue brought in a specialist contractor for a deep cleaning – a different one from the third-party service used for the routine full-shift nightly cleaning.
“Yes, there was a disruption, but at the end of the day, the most important thing was for us to take that step,” Walston says. “To bring in an outside service, to make sure that we had done everything we knew to do to make this plant as safe as possible.”
The pandemic measures that Perdue put into place won the company a gold award from the Consumer World Awards and a silver from the Stevie Awards for Great Employers. They include staggering break times (“You can’t always do that, but we attempt to do that as much as possible,” Bolin says), temperature checks upon entry, hand sanitizing available at almost every doorway and barriers between workers on the processing lines.
These measures are all widespread throughout the food industry (and many others), but at the Milford plant, the last one stands out in terms of ingenuity. Most plants went for either solid clear plastic barriers, which provide great protection but are hard to install and harder to reconfigure, or flexible plastic curtains, which provide less protection but are tough to keep clean.
A Perdue engineer rigged up “associate separation devices”: barriers made of large wire hoops, attached perpendicularly to the line, that serve as a frame for large plastic bags, creating dedicated workstations for each line worker. The bags are changed between shifts.
Processing begins with the arrival of the live birds in “smart stack” containers, 10 high, on a specially designed trailer. The trailer is open but can be enclosed and heated as necessary. Keeping the temperature steady helps keep the birds quiet and calm, Walston explains.
The containers are automatically unloaded onto conveyors that take them into the Atlas harvest system. A tunnel exposes the birds to a mixture of oxygen and carbon dioxide. As the containers make their way through the tunnel, in each of five one-minute stages the proportion of oxygen is decreased and of carbon dioxide increased, until the birds are rendered unconscious – still alive, but irreversibly insensible with no brain function. The sign that the system is working properly, Walston says, is that the birds wind up breast down, meaning that they sat and went to sleep.
“This is truly our investment in animal care,” he says of the Atlas system.
The unconscious birds are hung by the feet and sent to harvest, which is accomplished by a rotating wheel that makes a precise cut to each bird’s neck. The containers are sent off to be cleaned with high-pressure water, dried and stacked, ready to be taken by forklift back to the trailer on which they came in.
The birds get scalded at 128°F for three minutes, then put through a series of machines with rotating rubber “fingers” that remove their feathers in about 90 seconds. The defeathered birds are hung on a carousel-style eviscerator, which pokes a gutting knife-type attachment through the bird, top to bottom, removing the viscera, including the intestines, neck, heart, liver and gizzards. These are placed in a tray that moves on a conveyor belt at a speed that exactly matches the birds on the hanging conveyor.
It’s important to keep each bird matched up with its own viscera as it goes past a USDA inspector; if the viscera show evidence of disease or other problems, the inspector pulls the bird. Afterwards, the neck, heart, liver and gizzards are placed inside a whole bird for the home cook to use (or throw away), packaged for retail or reserved to sell to others for further processing.
The defeathered, eviscerated birds are held in a chilled water bath that, in the course of two hours, lowers their temperature from 90°F. to about 37°F. Then comes the first major sorting, into birds to be sold whole or cut into parts. Whole birds need to have perfect skin, with no feathers or bruising. Finding them is something that Perdue is not yet ready to trust to a machine.
“My opinion is, an experienced grader looking for the quality aspects that Perdue expects can do a better job than a machine,” Walston says.
The majority of the birds are cut up, although demand for whole birds picks up when the weather turns cold. Birds destined for parts get hung on shackles and sent, at about 250 a minute, through a series of automatic slicers that use angled circular saws to remove the wings, breasts and legs (which are then separated into drumsticks and thighs). Those parts then get channeled into one of 14 tray-pack lines that are broken down into particular parts (thighs, drumsticks, etc.) or further cuts like tenders.
It would be a daunting workload even without the pandemic. But Perdue keeps soldiering on – while trying to keep up the troops’ morale.
Says Walston: “When we ask somebody ‘How do you like working here,’ my personal goal is I want them to say, ‘You know, it’s a tough industry, there are tough jobs here, but this is a good place to work.’ ”