In 2005, we became the first chicken producer in this country to introduce Controlled Atmosphere Stunning into our production. The standard in the U.S. poultry
industry is to hang live, fully conscious chickens upside down on shackles, and then drag them by conveyor through an electrified water bath to stun them to an
unconscious state prior to sacrifice. In our view, this stunning method is not only inhumane, it also creates an untenable working environment for the employees
who hang the chickens, and it furthermore adversely affects the final product. Not only are the chickens flapping and fighting when they are hung—resulting in
bruising and bone breakage—but the natural tension and rigor in their muscle fibers as they fight and are shocked reduces their bleed-out upon sacrifice
(which is why you see blood spots, blood pooling, and bloody joints on most commercial chicken); it also eliminates much of the natural tenderness in a relaxed
With our CAS (Controlled Atmosphere Stunning) system, the chickens are conveyed through multi-chambered, state-of-the-art equipment where they receive increasing
levels of CO2, literally putting them slowly to sleep. They don’t flap, fight, or gasp, and they are not handled or shackled until they are entirely unconscious.
The room is bright, clean and comfortable for our employees, and the effect on the end-product is remarkable: The birds are not stressed, bruising and breakage are
minimized, bleed-out is maximized, and the muscle structure retains its natural tenderness. Yes, the CAS process is more expensive and less efficient than conventional
stunning, but it is more humane for both the chickens and for our employees, and it produces a far superior product.
After chickens are sacrificed, they are scalded for feather removal. The commercial industry standard is to scald at over 150°F. These temperatures facilitate quick and
efficient feather removal; they also literally start to cook the chicken, again having a material adverse effect on tenderness. Temperatures of 150°F start to emulsify the
skin, which is why most of the packaged chicken you see has very little color. We scald at as much as 25°F below the industry standard. While this slows our process and
necessitates greater care in feather removal, the end-product reflects the additional care.
Our focus on taste and concern for water resources led us to our first major processing innovation, in 1998, involving the way chickens are chilled after slaughter and
evisceration. We found that every chicken processor in this country utilized a water immersion method of chilling, whereby post-evisceration the chicken carcasses are
dumped in a communal trough or tub of heavily chlorinated water, where they spend a couple of hours until their internal temperature is reduced to under 40°F. Not only
are they sharing pathogens in this communal bath, but the carcasses literally absorb as much as 10% of their body weight of this chlorinated, communal water. That water
finds its way into the package you buy, and from the time it is packaged, it starts to purge—that is the reddish liquid you see in most commodity chicken trays.
We introduced to this country a chilling technology that was in common use in Europe: air chill. With air chill technology, the carcasses are chilled using cold air rather
than cold water. Tecumseh Farms’ system is a pure air chill system: Absolutely no water is utilized in the chill chamber. The chickens enter and exit the chamber on individual
shackles and circulate through the chamber until they have reached the requisite temperature. Not only do they not absorb any chlorinated water, but they never touch each
other in the chilling process, thus eliminating the opportunity for cross-contamination. The lack of introduction of an artificial ingredient—communal chlorinated
water—makes a remarkable difference in the muscle and microbiological integrity of the meat. Natural juices are preserved, not diluted, and the meat is better able to absorb
any seasonings or other ingredients during the cooking process, unlike immersion-chilled chicken. We found that the air chill technology made a remarkable difference in the
tenderness of the meat. We commissioned a university study to verify our findings, and their test results exceeded even what we had anticipated.
When we introduced air chill technology and focused on a study of tenderness, we deviated in another important way from the processing methods generally used in this country:
As a general rule, chickens processed in commercial plants are killed, processed, and packaged in one day. In fact, some companies produce further processed products in a
single continuous production line—a true factory in which chickens are killed, eviscerated, chilled, deboned, breaded, cooked, bagged, boxed, and frozen (think: chicken
nuggets!) in one continuous line. Most people are aware of the effect on tenderness of aging beef. The chill temperature equilibrates through the meat, the muscles relax,
and the muscle tension and rigor dissipates. We age our carcasses for a day before we process and package them. We found once again—and verified with a university
study—a remarkable improvement in tenderness as a result.
With our processing and packaging facilities, we have sought to combine the very best state-of-the-art technology with highly skilled, by-hand fabrication. Every Smart Chicken
breast fillet, tender, or thigh fillet is cut and trimmed by hand. We do not use any mechanical debone systems in our facility. This is one of the most labor-intensive aspects
of our production, and it requires highly trained and skilled workers. It results in the product being carefully and consistently prepared, and it also once again allows us
to avoid the use of equipment that might adversely affect tenderness and taste: There are no cuts, tears, or excess fat on our products.
Our unique combination of technology and people is perhaps most evident in how we grade and sort our products. We have developed a vision grading system, so that every part
of every carcass that fails to meet certain criteria—skin coverage, bone breakage, or bruising, for example—is automatically sorted, and those parts never become Smart
Chicken. We also take it a step further, and have quality assurance staff that visually inspect every piece and every tray, and sort pieces that do not meet our finished
product standards. We believe the resulting loss of efficiency and yield is worthwhile, because it allows us to put a consistent, higher-quality product in every tray,
Our technology also allows us to carefully track every flock we process. Doing so eliminates the opportunity for misdating and other mishandling, as well as commingling
of different flocks. If you were to call us with the printed numerical code that appears on every package of Smart Chicken, we could tell you not only the date that tray
or product was produced, but also the barn in which the chicken was raised, the day the chick hatched, and every other step of the process, all the way into the distribution
Beginning in 1998, we made a conscious decision to deviate from the industry standard in one other material respect: maintaining a close and direct presence with
our product all the way until it reaches the store. We have a direct employee representative in every market we serve, and as our employees, these representatives
do not sell or promote any product other than Smart Chicken. We have more (in fact many more) direct employee representatives than companies that produce the number
of chickens in a day or two that we produce in a year. We regularly visit every store that sells Smart Chicken, and directly engage as many consumers as we can. We want
to see issues, concerns, and trends—and also opportunities—before they do, and we believe that a direct, consistent presence is the only way we can be assured of doing so.