A Lifecycle of Humane Animal Compassion

In my last blog, I talked about the October 21, 2010 New York Times article, New Way to Help Chickens Cross to Other Side, by William Neuman. I talked about how our new slow induction anesthesia (SIA) will be a more humane, low-stress system that gently puts the birds to sleep before they are processed.

But the story doesn’t end there.  

SIA is the final step in years of work to create a lifecycle of humane animal compassion for our birds.  

Over the years, we’ve developed The Bell & Evans Humane Animal Welfare Standard, our guidelines that govern all aspects of our chickens’ lives and insure they receive the highest standards of humane animal treatment… for their entire life, not just during processing…from the breeder and the farm, to transport and the processing plant. Over the next few weeks I will discuss how our birds are cared for in each phase of their life. Today I want to start at the beginning and talk about our breeder farms.

We carefully select our breeder chickens and raises them from chicks, so they’re sure they grow up strong and healthy. Fresh air, fresh water and our specially-formulated, all-vegetarian diet help assure the flock will remain healthy.  Our breeders have spacious, well-ventilated houses that protect the chickens from the elements and predators, but still give them plenty of room to roam.  We carefully control their environment. Too hot or too cold and chickens get stressed. Fans, heaters and side walls that open, allow fresh air to circulate in warm weather and keep the house at a comfortable temperature year round.  We give the chickens special areas for socializing and the individual nests, with walls on three sides, give the hen a sense of security, while she’s laying her egg.  We don’t artificially inseminate our chickens, they mate naturally. If you saw Food Inc., you saw how stressful it was for those birds. As with all Bell & Evans facilities, our farm families dedicate their lives to the health and welfare of our chickens. They enforce strict B&E Standards in care, feeding and bio-security to protect our flocks.

In my next blog, I’ll discuss how we care for our chicks on the farm.

We’re setting the new standard for farm animal welfare

Even if you don’t read The New York Times, by now you’ve probably heard that we are again moving ‘ahead of the curve’… this time in farm animal welfare, by revolutionizing the way we begin to process our birds.

I was interviewed by The New York Times for their Oct. 22 front page article, New Way to Help Chickens Cross to Other Side, that focused on our new slow induction anesthesia system, which uses a CO2 gas to gently put the birds to sleep before they are processed.

To really understand why our new process is so important, you have to know a little about how live chickens are processed. The chickens are brought to a dimly lit area where workers pick them up by their legs and hang them upside down. A conveyor carries the birds to a unit that uses a mild electric shock to make them unconscious, and then to a machine that kills them.

Our new system is a gentle, stress-free, and much more humane way to process chickens. It works on the birds in the same way anesthesia works on a person before going into surgery. There’s no stress or panicked wing flapping that can injure the birds or our workers.

I’ve been researching the best way to do this and for the past 15 years. I’ve toured many European processing plants and analyzed their controlled-atmosphere stunning systems. I believe the custom-built system we’ve developed is much better. Their systems are designed to kill the birds, not put them to sleep. They can cut-off the birds of oxygen too quickly, which may cause them to suffer.

Earlier this year, Monica and I spent my birthday in Colorado and met with Temple Grandin. As a leading authority in livestock handling facilities, I wanted to get her input before we started construction. After showing her videos of the process and discussing our plans, she agreed, “This will be a big step forward for chicken welfare.”

For the last year, we have worked closely with PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) on this project. Although they would like everyone to be vegan, even they recognize it’s not going to happen. However, they share our compassion for farm animal welfare, and PETA applauds our efforts to raise our chickens with the best quality of life.

In my next entry, I’ll talk more about how this $3 million upgrade to our process will result in higher quality meat for your dinner table.

Anuga, Cologne Germany 2009

Back in October, my wife Monica and I journeyed to Cologne. Every other year the largest food show in the world is held there. I’ve been there many times over the years. It’s a great place to meet people and share ideas. I like to pick up on things before they get to our shores. I was very impressed with how far the organic programs have come in Europe and the support they receive from the governments. The meats on the menus on the German railroad were all organic.

After walking the show for two days and picking up a lot of new ideas, we headed for Vienna Austria. Every store or restaurant we visited in Austria had organic poultry available. There is no doubt in my mind that they take organic production very seriously in Europe. This trip definitely lifted my spirit in moving our organic program forward.

Before leaving Austria, I had to stop in Ebbs to visit the world headquarters of the Halfinger Horse. I have 11 of these great horses on our farm. They give me a break from the chickens. Europe was a great inspiration for me. Now I am home with my healthy, happy chickens.

My next blog entry will visit the movie Food Inc.

Dekalb Farmer’s Market

I’ve been traveling a lot the last three months accumulating a lot of good stuff to write about.

Back in the end of September my wife and I were invited to spend a weekend with the owners of Dekalb Farmer’s Market, which is located about 15 miles east of Atlanta Georgia on Ponce De Leon.

The owners Robert and Barbara Blazer were very gracious hosts. The Blazer’s are very committed to supporting and marketing products produced by family owned businesses.

Our mission was to educate the entire leadership staff about the production of Bell & Evans chicken and how it is different from commodity produced chicken.

I was given the opportunity to spend time in front of the poultry area of the market and introduce myself to customers. I asked them if they had any questions about the products. The number one group of questions was concerning the movie Food Inc. I had not seen the movie, so I did the best I could dealing with their concerns. Animal compassion, the environment and what the chickens are fed seem to be at the top of the list.

Dekalb Farmer’s Market is a must to see if you are in the Atlanta area. In my mind Dekalb Farmer’s Market is one of the great wonders of North America in the food business.

Bell & Evans has proudly supplied the market for over 20 years. Thank you Robert and Barbara Blazer for your commitment.

Consumer Reports January 2010

In the upcoming January 2010 issue of Consumer Reports Bell & Evans is highlighted as on the cleanest producers of broiler chickens in the industry. Eight of our chickens were tested for salmonella and campylobacter- and all eight were tested free of both bacteria.

We here at Bell & Evans have been doing the same procedure for years- we care about every step of the process from the farm to your table. Like we have discussed in previous blog entries- every aspect of the process is crucial. We do things our way because it’s the right thing to do.

Our all vegetable feed consists of corn, extruded and expeller pressed soybeans, vitamins and minerals. We never use animal or other by-products.

Our chicken houses are cleaned out in between every flock- not like other poultry producers who just lay down a new layer of litter. We also let the house remain empty in order to break any virus cycles. The concrete floors of the houses also make it easier to clean and sanitize.

Our award winning 2005 Plant of the Year (by Food Engineering Magazine) is another aspect of the process of producing clean and great tasting chicken. We have a high standard of efficiency and cleanliness throughout the plant. We inspect all birds during evisceration before entering into our air chill facility. Unlike other air chill facilities- our bird travel on one level in order to prevent cross contamination from other birds on higher racks dripping onto those underneath. The air chill process does not dilute the natural flavor of our chicken and means that our customers do not have to pay for water that would normally leak out of the chicken when it is water chilled.

Our one of a kind packaging is helping our chicken have an even longer shelf life and reduces our impact on the environment. After the chicken is sealed into this package it is not touch again by human hands until it opened by a customer at home. Since the new packaging can go directly into the freezer, it also reduces further risk of cross contamination.

All of these components add to the final product, that is why all of the steps are important to making a great tasting chicken. We wouldn’t change any aspect of our process because then it wouldn’t be Bell & Evan’s way of raising the excellent chicken.

The Brand- Bell & Evans

On August 27, 2009, I spent a day in New York demoing at the new Whole Foods Store at 97th and Columbus.

Once again we clogged the aisles with people waiting for a sample of our famous Chicken Nuggets.

For me, store demoing our products is energizing and builds my enthusiasm for the business.

The reception I received from customers was incredible. One customer wanted to buy my Bell & Evans cap. He recommended we sell them on the website and make sure I sign them. He said don’t be surprised, they are going to sell.

Another customer insisted on having her picture taken with me.

A friendly man asked me to bring back the boneless whole chicken roast. He said if you do I will help you promote them.

One lady said you can have your brochure back; I have been buying your chicken all my life and I do not have any intention to change.

I had a customer that was complaining that a store in her neighborhood tells people the chicken they sell is Bell & Evans, but she does not think it is and asked me if I would check it out.

It’s been a challenge over the years to police restaurant and retailers and make sure the products they were selling as Bell & Evans really is Bell & Evans. Deception in marketing on menus and at the retail case has never been worse. Selling commodity chicken for Bell & Evans or alleging it is just as good as is a crime.

There was a lady that bought chicken that was being promoted “from Pennsylvania” and assumed it was Bell & Evans only to learn it was not. She was not a happy customer about that. We do have some new competition using a Pennsylvania address that is producing commodity chicken and is marketing it as an equal to Bell & Evans.

On my ride home on the Bieber Bus back to Pennsylvania I began to think about how big our brand really is in N.Y. and how loyal the customers are to our brand. After almost 100 years of our product being in N.Y., we are still going strong. Consistently producing superior product really did pay off for us.

I hope to see you at our next product demo.

Ways to ensure you are buying Bell & Evans:

  1. Look for our logo.
  2. If the package has a retained water statement with a number other than 0% or “no retained water”- it probably isn’t Bell & Evans.
  3. If you still are unsure, give us a call at 1-800-786-1235 and ask for customer service.

Air Chilled Chicken

I have been getting a lot of requests lately to explain the difference between water and air chill as it relates to chicken processing.

Water chill when I first started back in the ‘60’s was a stainless tank filled with ice and spring water. That tank may have held 50 chickens. The bird temperature going into the tank was in the 90 degrees Fahrenheit range.

The birds chilled for hours before we pulled them out to cut and pack. We never used chlorine and I am not sure we knew what chlorine was back in those days.

Today the industry standard is still water chill but with a least cost high volume and high yield twist to it.

The procedure is a long refrigerated u shaped tube which could be over 100 feet long, and hold 30,000 to 50,000 gallons of heavily chlorinated water. The chickens are mechanically forced through the length of the chiller, absorbing lots of dirty chlorinated water. The force of moving the chickens inside the chiller is very damaging- breaking bones and tearing skin. At the end of the chiller, the chickens are elevated out of the tank and hand hung on the processing line. Many years ago we operated such a water chiller, so I know what I am talking about and I was happy to see it go.

The Bell & Evans Air Chill story probably started over 20 years ago while visiting a small plant in Germany. The owner of that plant engineered that system for all the right reasons and not just marketing hype.

Over the years I have visited poultry plants all over the world, many that converted from chlorinated water chill to air chill. Many installed cheap, poorly designed, and inefficient systems but were able to get marketing hype labeling the chicken as being air chilled.

By the time we could afford to build a first class Air Chill system, we knew what we wanted to achieve and what we didn’t want.

Below is an excerpt from our website explaining how we air chill our birds.

Our system consists of three different cooling chambers; each is closely monitored to maintain a specific temperature and humidity during the process. To assure proper chilling, the birds traverse almost two miles of track, taking them 2 hours and 45 minutes to move through the system. Unlike other Air Chill chambers, ours has a unique, single level chilling line that prevents cross contamination from birds on higher tracks dripping onto those underneath.

This slow chill process is also more effective in tenderizing the meat. Since our chickens do not depend on ice water for chilling, the chicken’s natural juices are not diluted in, or replaced by the water in a conventional water chiller. While in these conventional chillers, chickens may absorb 7 to 8% of their body weight in added water – and that water may contain chlorine. (Chlorine is added to conventional chillers to inhibit bacterial growth.) This water “weeps” out of the meat and is trapped in the “diaper” you find in fresh chicken packaging .

Since our Air Chill System uses cold air not water to chill our chickens, we are able to save tens of thousands of gallons of water each day. And since water is not weeping from the chicken, we will now be able to use recyclable and reusable shipping containers.

Benefits of the Bell & Evans Air Chill System

  • Bell & Evans Air Chilled Chickens retain their own natural juices.
    Each bite is incredibly more tender and full of flavor.
  • Bell & Evans Air Chilled Chickens are individually slow chilled.
    No water or chlorine permeates the meat or dilutes the flavor.
  • Bell & Evans Air Chill System is environmentally friendly.
  • Lower water usage, tens of thousands of gallons saved each day.
  • Longer shelf life.
  • Reduced human handling.
  • Cleaner, better appearance.
  • Closely monitored temperature controlled environment.

Below are two pictures, the first showing the effects of water chill and the second is of our air chill system. You decide which chicken you would rather eat:

Water Chill?

Or Air Chilled?

Vomitoxin in Wheat

Recently there has been a lot of discussion about the 2009 Wheat Harvest and the incidence of Vomitoxin.

Vomitoxin is a mycotoxin that may be produced in wheat heads when wet weather conditions occur during the flowering and grain filling stages of development.

There may be severe negative consequences for both human and animal consumption.

Unfortunately, there is quite a lot of this wheat moving around our industry today at distressed prices. Low priced wheat relative to corn has many poultry producers considering substituting wheat for corn in their diets.

Bell & Evans does not use wheat in our chicken’s diet even when wheat quality is good.

When you honestly raise chickens without using antibiotics, wheat in the diet has been proven to be detrimental in raising healthy birds.

When I say without using antibiotics, I don’t just mean from birth.

At Bell & Evans no antibiotics means no adding antibiotics to the vaccine injected in the eggs before they are hatched; also not in the feed, water, air, old manure, or some other creative way.

There is a lot to be concerned about when your goal is to raise a good healthy flock.

There is more to come.

Feed and Grain

I recently participated in the opening of a new Whole Foods Market Store in Centennial Colorado, an area just south of Denver. My participation consisted of 3 days of cooking and sampling our Bell & Evans chicken nuggets to thousands of customers. This is a great format that allows me to answer questions that customers have and ask questions that I have for the customers. Sometimes I am able to convert Vegetarians back to eating chicken. Often they just need a little education and some good honest answers.

Participating in hundreds of these events over the years has helped me in the direction of how we operate at Bell & Evans. A popular concern I had from many in Colorado was the GMO issue and Organic Certification.

In recent years, large seed companies unloaded their GMO seed on famers in a big way. Those farmers were told GMO seed was the answer to feed the growing world’s population. Now they are told that we need GMO seed to produce enough corn ethanol to decrease our dependence on foreign oil.

All of the certified Organic corn and soybean we purchase is of U.S. origin and the farms that produce these crops plant non-GMO seed. The best certified Organic grain farmer cannot build a wall high enough to prevent pollen from drifting from a nearby conventional field from spreading across his Organic field. So to say our organic grain is 100 % GMO free would be wrong.

Now we have the lower cost certified Organic grain grown in China coming in through Canada and possibly other avenues. I don’t have any reason to believe their Organic certification has any value. Many in the poultry and livestock production have resorted to this grain to buy market share because of its lower cost. I am disappointed that retail buyers haven’t helped stop this wrong.

We can grow all the certified Organic grain we need right in the U.S.A. I like to know what I am paying for especially when I am paying a premium. There is more feed stuff to come.

Talking About Our Chicken Feed.

90% of our diet consists of corn, extruded and expeller pressed soybeans. The remaining 10 % consists of vitamins and minerals.

Many years ago, we were struggling with a bird health problem. I thought maybe its cause was from mold in the rail car transporting soybean meal. I went to the feed mill and asked the mill operator to open the rail car unloading door to watch it unload and inspect for mold. As the door opened, this odor poured out. It smelled like model airplane glue. I asked the mill operator what the awful smell was. He said that’s Hexane, a cheap efficient solvent to extract the oil and vitamins from soybeans. I immediately made my mind up that anything that smelled like that was not going to be part of our future chicken feed. My next step was a lesson in soybean processing.

Soybean extraction/processing – The procedure involved in the separation of the oil and the protein meal from the whole soybean.

  • Solvent extraction (Hexane) – The process where by the oil is leached from flaked soybeans.
  • Pressing process – At elevated temperatures, using expellers or screw presses which utilize a worm shaft continuously rotating with a pressing cylinder or cage to express the oil from the beans after they have been ground and properly conditioned.

What is Hexane?

Hexane is a Petroleum by product of gasoline refining. It is a highly explosive toxic chemical. Hexane is a major air pollutant. In fact it is classified as a HAP- Hazardous Air Pollutant by the EPA. Hexane also steals our vitamin E.

At the end of this separation process the livestock producer buys the protein, and fiber. The oil may be further processed into consumer grade.

My question to you is – how can producers and retailers market chicken as naturally raised when one of the two main components of the diet are processed with a toxic chemical like Hexane?

There is a lot more chicken feed to come.

For further information, please feel free to read the Cornucopia report.