Provender Conference Food Liaison Tours Smart Chicken

December 11th 2017

by Melissa Elkins, Community Food Co-op

In early October, Community Food Co-op (Bellingham, WA ) staff members Melissa Arbiter, Downtown store meat manager; James Aikins, Downtown store kitchen manager; and I visited Tecumseh Poultry in Nebraska, more commonly known as Smart Chicken. All of us wanted to learn more about why their company is an industry leader that sets the highest standard for humane chicken processing in the United States.

From Left to Right: Josh Lassen, Peter Lassen, Anthony, Gayle Lassen (all from Lassens Natural Foods and Vitamins in LA), Brian Forde (WA Smart Chicken rep), Kevin Watkins (CA Smart Chicken rep), Melissa Arbiter, Melissa Elkins, James Aikins – Tecumseh Organic Chicken Farm, Tecumseh, NE

Our tour started at one of their organic farms, located just a few miles from their production facility in Tecumseh. We suited up (you cannot enter chicken farms without taking biosecurity measures) and headed out to tour one of the barns and talk to the farm’s veterinarian and nutritionist. Their organic chickens are housed in enormous barns, with doors that allow access to the outdoors. They house several thousand fewer birds in each house than required by organic standards or for Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) certification. We learned that the chickens eat locally sourced grains and that they love to play! –Each house has a variety of “toys” for the chickens to interact with, but their favorites are buckets with the ends cut out. The vet said they love running through the “tunnel.” We couldn’t go into area of the barn where the chickens were, due to biosecurity measures, but we did get to peek through the control room window to check out the occupants, who were well-spaced and happily clucking along.

After touring the farm, we headed back to town to Tecumseh’s production facility, which was expanded by 50% in 2015. We once again suited up for a tour with David Carnagey who has worked for Smart Chicken since 2005. I was a little nervous. While I have seen animals being sacrificed for consumption in the past, it had never been on the level that we were about to witness—Smart Chicken processes roughly 300,000 birds a week. However, my fears were unfounded.

When the chickens arrive from the farm, they are loaded onto a giant conveyer that leads them into the first controlled atmosphere stunning operation (aka, slow induction anesthesia) in the U.S. Smart Chicken uses carbon dioxide to put the chickens to sleep prior to being harvested rather than bolt stunning which opens the door to a lot of human error and is exactly what it sounds like. Not only is anesthesia considered the most humane system for the chickens, it is also the most humane method for the employees and I can attest to that firsthand.

Smart Chicken Production Facility

From Left to Right: Josh Lassen, Peter Lassen, Anthony, Melissa Arbiter, Kevin Watkins, Melissa Elkins, Gayle Lassen, Brian Forde, James Aikins.  Smart Chicken production facility, Tecumseh, NE

We walked the entire processing line with 100% transparency about their operations. Every door was opened, every question was answered, and every process was witnessed firsthand. Their facility was incredibly clean, well lit, and well managed and they even let us tour their water processing facility across the street, which they had never done before.

After the production facility and farm, there was only one step left – packaging. We traveled about 40 miles to Waverly, Nebraska, to see the packaging facility. We declined a tour of the floor as the workers were slicing and dicing and we didn’t want to distract them. Instead we spent our time in the state-of-the art control room that overlooked the entire facility and that basically negated the need for a tour.

Every chicken is scanned upon entering the facility, so it can be graded and sorted. Every chicken is also hand trimmed, which is also pretty unique to the Smart Chicken operation as most packaging facilities employ fewer people and more automated cutters. It was mesmerizing watching the skilled employees perfectly cut each bird into specified cuts in record time and send it down the line to be wrapped, packaged, and shipped to stores across the nation.

Across the parking lot from their packaging facility are their home offices. We sat down with CEO Kevin Siebert to ask about things that weren’t covered in the tour, mainly labor practices as we had already witnessed what I believe to be the most humane and progressive chicken processing operation in the country. It was great to hear about their demographics; roughly 2/3 of their workforce are people of color, about half of their staff are women, they pay for continued education for employees, offer great wages and incentives, and turnover is low for the industry. Not only that, but the staff we met seemed to enjoy and appreciate the company they work for.

At the end of the day, there really is a Smart Chicken difference. It is rare for any national company that sells meat products to be 100% transparent and Tecumseh Farms is just that. Their chickens (and employees) are treated like they matter, because they do.

Melissa Elkins is the Sustainability Coordinator and Administrative Assistant at the Community Food Co-op in Bellingham, Washington.  She is also the Volunteer Food Liaison for the Provender Educational Conference, making sure we all eat delicious and sustainable food at the Conference.