Smart Chicken: Tecumseh Farms Interview on Sustainable Humane Chicken

A lot of people are wondering what brands of chicken are healthy and humane.

The answers may surprise you. In this interview we take a fresh look at Smart Chicken. What do we discover? A new take on “food miles” — killing chickens gently and humanely is possible — thoughts about antibiotics and animal byproducts in feed — why air chilling matters.

Many companies are born out of a desire to do things bigger, better and faster than any other before. However, for Tecumseh Farms, a Nebraska-based certified organic chicken producer, bigger and faster weren’t nearly as important as doing things better. Since its founding, the company has remained steadfast in its goal of bringing flavor, humane treatment and sustainable environmental practices back to chicken production. Rather than adopting industry shortcuts that compromise worker, animal and environmental health — not to mention overall product quality — Tecumseh Farms has infused old-fashioned farming and animal husbandry techniques with first-in-the-U.S. technology.

Ethical Foods spoke with Jason Siebert, vice president of sales and marketing for Tecumseh Farms, about what separates the company from its big business counterparts and why it still values human hands over automation.

The Midwest isn’t really a hub for large-scale chicken operations, so how did you select Nebraska as the base of your operations?

“Smart Chicken believes in operating in the most sustainable way possible and with a keen eye to preserving natural resources. The vast majority of feed grains produced in this country are produced in the Midwest, and corn and soybeans are the dominate feed sources for chickens. Our chickens are raised in barns and processed in facilities that were literally built in corn and soybean fields. Another major location criterion was water resources. The Midwestern states are located on the greatest natural aquifer in the world, the Ogallala aquifer. Like any agricultural operation, production of chicken requires a substantial amount of water, not only for drinking, but also for production of the feed grains necessary to raise the chickens and also in the processing operation itself. From an environmental perspective, there is no better place for a chicken producer to be located than the heart of the Midwest.”

Stores and restaurants all over the country are now offering Smart Chicken, which raises the concern of food miles and keeping food truly local.

“Since every pound of chicken in a package takes between two and three pounds of corn and soybeans to produce, we believe the math is simple: It takes far fewer non-renewable resources to transport packaged chicken than it does grain. Being located at the geographical center of the country, and literally on top of the primary distribution corridor in the country, Interstate 80, allows us to serve markets in a variety of locations with the least possible aggregate travel.

“According to the definition adopted by the US Congress in the 2008 Food, Conservation, and Energy Act (2008 Farm Act), the total distance a product may be transported and still be considered local or regionally produced is less than 400 miles from its origin, or within the State in which it is produced. When you take in account the amount of miles the feed and the eggs travel so that chickens may be raised locally, the food miles are much greater for a local product raised in the outer lying, coastal states.”

The chicken market is already dominated by big brands like Perdue and Tyson, so what inspired Tecumseh Farms to enter the mix?

“Tecumseh Farms was founded in 1998 based on the notion that the poultry processing industry in this country had consolidated and integrated to the point that it had taken the taste out of store-bought chicken. By then, a few large corporations controlled the vast majority of chicken sold in this country.

“Not only that, but they controlled every aspect of production, from the hens laying the eggs to processing to packaging, right up to distribution. With a singular focus on volume, all of their efforts for decades were directed not at how to do things well, but at how to do them quickly, cheaply and efficiently. The unfortunate smaller companies that fought to stay competitive had no choice; if they wanted to survive, they had to adopt the same methods as the big boys.

“Our founding mission was to restore taste and a pleasant and healthy eating experience to store-bought chicken, and to do it in the right way. We believed – and still believe – that the right way includes proper treatment and care of our chickens and also our people, and the utmost care and discretion in processing and packaging. We also believed that we could do so while keeping a careful eye on the environment and on the sustainability and renewability of the resources we would need to access. We knew we’d have to be able to do things efficiently, but also believed that consumers would be willing to pay a little more for superior chicken produced with these principles in mind. We have restored taste to store-bought chicken in this country, and we take great pride in that accomplishment.”

How do Tecumseh Farms’ values, mission and approach to animal husbandry separate it from its big business, factory farming counterparts?

“We firmly believe that the quality of our end product – the taste – is affected by every aspect of how the chickens are raised, fed and handled, starting in the egg. Beginning in 1998, we started building state-of- the-art tunnel ventilation buildings in which to raise our chickens. In addition to allowing natural ventilation and sunlight, these buildings have both heating and air conditioning (through a process involving the continuous re-use of chilled water) for extreme summer and winter conditions. The buildings are continuously ventilated, naturally or with large fans, to ensure continuous fresh air. There are no cages or other enclosures. The chickens are free to roam, and have readily available feed and water at all times. The bedding is a natural litter, continuously reconditioned and maintained so that it remains dry and clean, allowing the birds to dust bathe and act naturally.

“Certified organic chickens must also meet strict standards for raising and handling, including access to outside pastures. Our certified organic chickens, in addition to having access to state-of-the-art heated and air conditioned facilities, also are free range, with access to well-maintained grass pastures. The USDA and IDALS (Iowa Department of Agriculture and Land Stewardship) regularly audit and verify compliance with these standards. A couple years after we introduced our organic chicken, we also achieved certification of humane care and handling of our chickens through the HFAC (Humane Farm Animal Care) association. HFAC takes the National Organic Program standards a step farther, adding rigorous limitations on stocking density, handling and access to feed and water, etc. We’re proud to be the only chicken producer in the country to maintain both certified organic and certified humane status.

“We have also refused to shift to automated catching of our chickens. All of our chickens are caught by hand by trained catch crews, both to eliminate stress and injury to the birds and to increase quality.”

What do you feed your chickens?

“Our diets are corn and soy bean based, and the vast majority of the grains we use are produced on the same farms where our chickens are raised, or close by. We’ve been in the process for a number of years of converting our production to certified organic grains, which are also certified as GMO-free by the Non-GMO Project. While we’ve converted a substantial portion of our production to organic, to this point we have been unable to locally source enough certified organic, non-GMO feed for all of our production, and unlike many in the industry, we believe importing grain from China or South America defeats the purpose.”

What’s your stance on antibiotic use and animal byproduct feed?

“We do not use animal byproducts or other fat or energy enhancers in our feed. We believe using animal renderings in feed, which most chicken producers do, is a cheap shortcut that reduces quality. Animal byproducts artificially hasten growth and weight gain, but also produce excess fats in the meat. We were one of the first broiler companies — and remain one of the few — to entirely eliminate the use of antibiotics in raising our chickens. We never use any antibiotics when raising Smart Chicken, whether by injection or in feed or water. We have antibiotics available in the event of sickness, but chickens treated with antibiotics are never sold as Smart Chicken. The issue rarely arises, though, because we’ve found that the need for antibiotics can be virtually eliminated with appropriate care and handling of the chickens and the facilities.

“The effect of indiscriminate use of antibiotics in livestock production in this country, both actual and potential, is remarkable. Dosages and variations keep increasing as organisms develop resistance and as new strains emerge. The effect of this use of antibiotics on human pathogens may be debatable, but the effect on pathogens affecting chickens is not. With proper care and patience, chickens simply don’t need to be drugged from egg to shelf in order to thrive.”

Stress has been shown to have some pretty detrimental effects on chickens. It can increase their chances of contracting bacterial infections, impact the flavor and quality of the meat, and can even result in cannibalism and excessive pecking. How does Tecumseh Farms help ensure a stress-free environment for its birds?

“One reason the industry relies on antibiotics is that antibiotics help facilitate shortcuts, such as overstocking, stimulating over-eating through aggressive lighting programs, and similar management tools. We avoid those practices.”

Typical industrial chicken harvesting methods generally involve shackling the birds by their feet and partially electrocuting them before slaughter. Does Tecumseh Farms follow these practices as well?

“In 2005, we became the first chicken producer in the United States to introduce Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (CAS) into our production. With our CAS 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.”

What steps do you take after harvesting to ensure your chickens are top quality?

“Our combination of technology and people is perhaps most evident in how we grade and sort our products. We’ve developed a vision grading system, so every part of every carcass that fails to meet certain criteria is automatically sorted and never become Smart Chicken. We also take it a step further and have quality assurance staff that visually inspects every piece and every tray. We believe the resulting loss of efficiency and yield is worthwhile, because it allows us to put out a consistent, higher- quality product.”

What is air chilling and why does it have such an impact on the flavor and quality of the chicken?

“Smart Chicken was the first chicken producer in the country to transition from water immersion chilling to air chilling. Our facilities were designed to support 100 percent air-chilled product. As a result, chickens are individually chilled (never touching another chicken) as they circulate through purified cold air in a series of closely monitored chill chambers. Some products considered air chilled are actually chilled using a combination of cold air and treated water, which is faster and more cost-effective, but Smart Chicken is the only poultry producer USDA Process Verified as Pure Air-Chilled – No Water Added. 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.”

Many steps throughout the typical industrial chicken production process have been automated to save time and money. Why does Tecumseh Farms continue to rely so heavily on human power?

“Every Smart Chicken breast fillet, tender or thigh fillet is cut and trimmed by hand. We don’t use any mechanical debone systems. This is one of the most labor-intensive aspects of our production, and it requires highly trained and skilled workers. It also allows us to avoid the use of equipment that might adversely affect tenderness and taste. Hand trimming results in the product being carefully and consistently prepared, removing excess fat and skin so that the consumer doesn’t have to. In addition, the process includes further food-safety checks that help ensure food quality and consumer safety.”

How do you ensure a safe and healthy working environment for your employees, and guarantee that those living near your operations don’t experience harmful environmental impacts?

“Our barns are spread out and are built in the middle of corn and soybean fields, far from any environmentally sensitive areas. That’s another advantage to being located in the Midwest. Focusing on quality, rather than size and speed, teaches you pretty quickly that there are great synergies between employee comfort, chicken comfort and product quality. We couldn’t produce the quality product we do if either our employees or our chickens were in unhealthy environments.”

When it comes to purchasing locally-raised, organic chicken, most customers already have a variety of options. When weighing Smart Chicken against similar products with similar production standards, how does Smart Chicken stand out?

“What makes Smart Chicken stand out is our commitment to quality and taste. The consumer may try Smart Chicken because of our principles, our humane treatment and care of our chickens, our careful eye on the environment, our sustainability, but ultimately the reason most consumers come back is the difference in quality and taste.”

Tecumseh Farms seems to be an innovator when it comes to humane treatment and responsible animal husbandry practices. Does the company have any plans to further improve its operations?

“We’ve learned a great many things along the way, including the fact that the job is never done. There are always improvements and enhancements to be made, and our quest to be the best and to continue to raise the bar will never end. In 2015, Smart Chicken will be opening numerous new barns and facilities. This new construction isn’t going to result in increased production, but rather it’s our way of continuing to improve the conditions in which our birds are raised, and the environment in which our employees work. We will also install a new, upgraded version of our Controlled Atmosphere Stunning system in 2015.

“We’ve been pleased to see several producers have subsequently tried to emulate many of our principles and processes, and we welcome those developments. We appreciate the challenge to stay ahead of the pack, a challenge that drives us to get better and better; it does not, and never will, tempt us to cut corners or settle for anything less than the best.”
photo credit: Tecumseh Farms

Learn more

Smart Chicken website

Certified Humane Raised & Handled standards

Sustainable Kitchen Guide: How to buy poultry

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