Blog | November 15, 2010

Bye-Bye Birdie: My adventure in mobile poultry processing

AliciaWarning: This could get gory.
Over the summer I visited lovely Martha’s Vineyard to tour the island’s new mobile poultry processing trailer—a project launched by the Island Grown Initiative (IGI) to increase the viability of local food production on the island.

Mobile Poultry Processing Units like IGI’s trailer are growing in popularity as local and regional food advocates hammer out the nuts and bolts of new food systems nationwide. In our increasingly industrial and consolidated food system, slaughtering and processing is one of the biggest bottlenecks for small-scale poultry producers interested in selling their goods locally. Producers often must truck or ship their animals hundreds of miles away for slaughter, and then bring the meat back for local distribution—an investment that is rarely cost-effective for small herds and a scenario that belies the promise of fewer food miles, which consumers look for when they buy local meat and poultry products.

IGI is among the innovators finding low-cost solutions to this obstacle, often after tirelessly working through state departments of agriculture and local public health officials. But it’s well worth the effort: mobile processing units decrease the prohibitive transport costs and slaughtering fees that come with the few remaining USDA-certified slaughterhouses nationwide. Producers also benefit from a more intimate view of how their animals are treated and processed after they’ve raised them. And consumers can trust that their local meat and poultry products really have traveled the fewest number of miles possible to reach their plates.

Chickens processed by IGI’s trailer can be marketed openly at farmers markets, restaurants, boarding houses and farm stands as well as directly to consumers on the island. IGI is in the process of partnering with local and state Boards of Health so farmers can sell their birds to certain retail outlets too. IGI’s director Ali Berlow explains, “The purpose of the Mobile Poultry Processing Unit has always been to provide safe, clean, on-farm, fair wage, size-appropriate (scalable), affordable, humane slaughter and processing of poultry. We anticipate that with this Pilot Program in place for the season, IGI will support the humane processing of 5,000 chickens for sale this year, up from 3,000 last year.”

Having never been up-close-and-personal with animal slaughter of any kind before, I was a little nervous to embark on this adventure. I was pleasantly surprised by the experience.

The Chicken Crew’s slaughter man, Jefferson Munroe, showed me the ropes of their trailer (see pictures below), which started with the hens waiting in crates. Jeff was careful with each hen, holding their bodies upside down gently in one arm to calm them before slaughter (the blood-rush to their head calms them considerably and is a humane way to care for them). After he cut their throats, their bodies were drained in metal cones that could cleanly collect their blood. Once finished, he moved the hens through a hot water cycle that removed their top layer of skin. This, I was told, made plucking much easier when they are placed in the “plucker,” a big metal cylinder with plastic “fingers” that rotates rapidly to remove the bulk of the chickens’ feathers. Jeff then hand-plucked the straggling feathers from their bodies. The birds sat in cold water until the cutting crew, made up of Emily Palmer and Taz Armstrong, was ready to remove their feet, head and innards and finish the process. Voila! Oven-ready birds were ready and waiting.

Jeff noted the almost magical process he witnesses each time his poultry processing unit has a job: how the hens transform from being animals in a yard to meat ready for a rotisserie in a matter of minutes. It’s a process most eaters would prefer remain a mystery. But I challenge each of us to think more carefully about where our poultry (and meat, fish, veggies, fruits and all food for that matter!) comes from, and what kind of care we consider appropriate before it sits on our plate, feeds our families and fuels our bodies. In my opinion, we’d all benefit from being more familiar with how our food is produced and more supportive of local food system infrastructure, like mobile poultry processing units.

An update from Jeff:

It’s always great to get the word out about what we’re trying to do concerning local, affordable and humane slaughter. After your post went up, I received an email from another farmer who was concerned that the article doesn’t specify that we chill birds down to 40 degrees in ice baths prior to packaging. This is a practice that we do; documentation is only required at our licensed processings, so you didn’t see us checking the birds during your visit. If there’s an easy way to add this in it might help avoid having other farmers think that we don’t chill our birds down to 40 degrees.

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