They say imitation is the best form of flattery. Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (CAS) has been in the news this week – a large commodity chicken producer announced its investment in their first CAS system and improvements to its live-bird handling. This upgrade is part of their new poultry welfare commitment and a gradual transition to replace all of its existing electrical stunning systems. Their big news this week sounds pretty similar to our big news about a decade ago! We are flattered! But really, kudos to them for finally making these changes.
We’ve always focused on the welfare of our chickens. In 2010, we began installation of our own, better, version of CAS know as Slow Induction Anesthesia TM (SIA). Our switch was also part of our larger Humane Animal Welfare standard, an ever-evolving commitment to doing what’s best for our chickens. We spent many years researching and developing a specialized system that is the best solution for our birds. Having done the research and seen many traditional CAS systems and their flaws, I have some questions about this commodity producer’s “improvements.”
Controlled Atmosphere Stunning is a method of quickly stunning chickens using CO2 or a similar gas to put them to sleep prior to processing. I first learned about it during my travels to Europe in the ‘90s, where it’s a common practice. Here in the U.S., most chicken producers (then and now) use electrical shock to render chickens unconscious. Common sense tells you that using CO2 gas is more humane. However, traditional CAS is a quick process, and when chickens are deprived oxygen too quickly, they experience extreme stress and sometimes convulsions. That’s not humane and I wanted better for my chickens. What kind of CAS system is this producer using?
Our SIA system was fully installed in 2011 for 100% of our chickens. It is 10-times slower than traditional CAS. The slow and gradual release of CO2 through a series of long chambers peacefully puts our chickens to sleep without stress. Our system also has viewing windows to look in for full transparency. We received praise from Temple Grandin and the biggest animal welfare organizations in the U.S. on our SIA project. With all the support we received in 2011 around our SIA system, why did it take this big commodity producer 7+ years to start transitioning? Was it their decision or pressure from customers, welfare groups and others?
In conjunction with our premium SIA system, we invested in specialized live-haul drawers, modules and customized trailer systems to humanely haul our chickens from the farm to our harvesting facility (even though our chickens travel less than an hour, on average!). We also added a Calming Barn to our harvesting facility in 2012 where trailers sit and allow time for the chickens to fully relax before processing. Once moved into processing, our chickens stay in the comfort of those same drawers as they pass through our slow SIA system. They are never handled, so they remain relaxed through the entire process. How is their “new process” the first of its kind in the U.S. when it sounds like a replication of ours?
Another upgrade to our SIA system is our installation of a washing system for our drawers, modules and transportation system. We focus a lot of on sanitation since we are 100% antibiotic free. This extra step of fully sanitizing equipment between flocks minimizes the potential for contamination. Traditional CAS systems do not include a washing system.
For a smaller, family-owned chicken producer like us, a $2.5 million investment for a new stunning and wash system was significant. That cost did not include the specialized trailers, drawer system, Calming Barn and other changes made to implement it. We made the investment because we believe in doing the right thing. To the “Big Chicken” companies, this kind of investment is not as substantial to their bottom line. Again, it begs the question, why now?
Animal welfare is no new commitment to Bell & Evans. We recently committed to converting 100% of our chickens to a higher-welfare breed, Das Klassenbester TM. We are making this transition because those Big Chicken companies negatively altered primary chicken breeds by selectively breeding only the largest, fast-growing chickens to gain higher profits. Now, chickens suffer through unnatural growth and so we had to get to the root of the problem and find better genetics. Maybe we’ll see some of the commodity producers follow our lead with a healthier breed in a few years too?
This producer may be the biggest to make such a move, but they certainly aren’t the first. We pioneered many of the humane animal welfare and premium quality standards in chicken processing today. We’ve promoted our improvements and results for years, giving the other guys plenty of opportunity to copycat us. The difference is that when we make improvements, we do it for the right reasons – for the better of our chickens and our customers. We’re proud to lead and influence the poultry industry the way we do, especially as a smaller producer. And we’re not done! Our loyal, longtime customers expect us to continue evolving and we will. We have the highest standards in the industry and are proud of it.