Are chickens on your farm processed in a USDA facility? Is someone inspecting to ensure health/cleanliness, etc? It occurred to us that as many of our customers are coming from the city and are far removed from all of the laws and regulations surrounding farm life; and therefore it would be a good idea to share the answers to these questions.
These are fair questions that deserve an answer! First, let’s get the laws out of the way. A federal law PL90-492 allows producer/growers to dress up to 20,000 birds annually without government inspectors on site, as long as the birds are “unadulterated” and “sanitary.” These two subjective terms have been widely construed by bureaucrats.
Some states do not allow any open-air processing and some states do not allow even one bird to be processed without massive facilities being built and maintained.
There is also an exemption (Exempt P.L. 90-492) in place for smaller farms such as ours, that allows farmers raising 1,000 chickens or less to process/dress those chickens on their farm and sell to local customers. This exemption is where our farm is categorized currently.
A USDA-inspected facility is far less effective as is a customer-inspected facility.
So what about safety? Who is checking up on us?
The short answer to that is: You!
Let us submit the idea to you that a USDA-inspected facility is far less effective as a customer-inspected facility. If you visited us on a processing day and didn't like what you saw, you would certainly not come back to purchase chickens from us!
Consider this, it was a government agency that put “Twinkies” on the shelf saying they are safe for consumption. I would beg to differ on that; and about a thousand other items on our grocery store shelves these days. It was also a government agency who approved and put their seal on the lettuce that brought listeria to a large number of states recently. It was a government agency that put the 'a-ok' on feeding cattle parts to other cattle, bringing us Mad-Cow disease. It is a government agency that tells us 400ppm of glyphosate on our corn fields is “safe.”
Well, you get the idea.
Government officials also have given the go-ahead to bring in processed chicken from China, this was approved back in 2013, many of which are not even labeled as such. (See this article for details on that): https://www.cbsnews.com/news/officials-say-okay-to-processed-chicken-from-china/ )
So far, not one case of food-borne pathogens has been reported among the thousands of pastured poultry producers, many of whom have voluntarily had their birds analyzed. Routinely, these home-dressed birds, which have not been treated with chlorine to disinfect them, show numbers far below industry comparisons. These are just a few of the reasons we say that a customer-inspection is more powerful and effective than a USDA inspection.
How Our Chickens Are Processed
Our chickens are taken from the field right into our open-air processing area, and we don’t electrocute them like the industry does. We do a kind of a kosher type of kill, which is just slitting the jugular, and they gradually just faint or fade away.
We have raised them. We have nurtured them and cared for them. It’s different from the compartmentalization of the industrial system, where people who have never seen the animal alive are doing the slaughter. And these workers are doing the same thing every.single.day.
We believe it is psychologically inappropriate to slaughter animals every single day. Even in the Bible, the Levites drew straws; they ran shifts in the tabernacle where they did animal sacrifices.
We work quickly and within 3-5 minutes the chicken goes from alive (happily grazing on the forage up until the last minute) to clean and packed in ice water to “rest” for 24-48 hours. The “rest” period helps create a very tender meat.
We do not crate up our birds the night before causing them great stress. We leave them on the pastures until we are ready to start the processing.
We have an open-door policy. Anyone is welcome to come at any time to see anything, anywhere. (Except Sundays of course, as we are at church.) We encourage anyone to come and walk the fields, pet the animals, bring their children, gather the eggs out of the nest boxes—in other words, to build a relationship and create a memory that can follow them all the way to the dinner plate.
We want to provide a platform, so that anyone can come and partake of this marvelous theater that was all a part of normal life 150 years ago. We want to create a greater sense of all the mystery and appreciation for seasons and for the proper plant-animal-human relationships.
Some people even want to process some chickens with us. And that is a very powerful memory to take to the table with you. If the average person partook of the processing of an industrial/commercially raised chicken, they probably wouldn’t want to eat chicken. But by coming to our farm and seeing the respect that’s afforded to that animal all the way through, we can create a thankful, gracious, honoring experience when we come to eat.
The model we follow offers ecological and nutritional advantages over commercial, even “organic” certified operations. Why? Because we do these three things as a foundation:
(1) portable chicken homes
(2) fresh forage;
(3) birds moved to fresh pasture paddocks daily
We’ve seen some “improvements” in the industrial industry that try to mimic the idea of free-range. While this might be better than cages, it is still full of disadvantages. For one thing, poultry manure is extremely high in nitrogen and quickly saturates such heavily used areas with nitrogen and pathogens, creating a bitter-tasting forage that is unpalatable to the flock. And their scratching, fluffing and dustbathing destroys much of the sod, leaving the soil exposed and raw.
To combat these weaknesses, we use light shelters that can be moved by hand or tractor each day, so that the flock also moves to fresh ground. This keeps the birds away from yesterday’s vegetation regrowth and stimulates forage ingestion by the poultry. This system works for both egg layers and meat birds. And it yields a bird that does not need antibiotics to keep it alive.
Modern conventional chicken production takes places in windowless buildings that house tens of thousands of birds, stacked in cages three high. Feed is taken to the birds on conveyor belts and the eggs brought back the same way. The birds are debeaked so that they do not cannibalize each other. Every few days a human being walks through to remove dead birds.
Less Travel = More Safety
There is a whole additional blog post that could be written on the details of how birds are raised here on our farm verses how they are raised in conventional “USDA approved” facilities. But as far as safety in our processing methods, we’ll take open-air processing over a large facility any day.
Our birds move just a few yards from their home to be processed. If we used a USDA facility our chickens would have to be crated up and driven many miles over to Illinois (currently the closest processing facility for chickens that we know of). The stress of that trip would cause many birds to die before arriving.
Then after packaging, they would need to be shipped back to our farm for sales. The more miles hauled, the more hands touching them, the more chance of contamination. Not to mention the wasted fuel, clogging of roads and smog we create along the way.
In an outdoor setting there is fresh air, sunlight (a natural disinfectant), wind and rain also sanitize the area in between processing days. We aren’t processing every day so there is time for sanitation both by our doing and by nature! There is little waste because we use or sell nearly every part of the chicken.
Any chicken waste we do have isn’t dumped in some trash facility to further spread germs and become an ever-growing problem. Instead, the waste is added to prepared compost piles where it is turned back into the earth over the following year. As nature shows us, all turns back to the earth. Nothing is wasted here!
The Pastured Poultry Challenge
Our biggest challenge isn’t outsmarting predators, dealing with weather or coming up with more efficiencies (though these are all challenges we face), the biggest hindrance to us is government regulations which keep the small farmer from offering this wonderful food to more people each year. We appreciate the need for some oversight with large corporations who are processing thousands of chickens daily; for their workers become tired and there is likely high turnover of labor. This can lead to perhaps little concern about where these chickens came from or whose plate they will land on. But the oversight we think is most effective is that of the consumer. Smaller farms afford this opportunity.
If you visit you can see and you will know! Most small farmers will welcome
your visit. Though they are very busy each day, they are glad to share what they are doing on their farm.