The future of Big Chicken 

Georgia's orchestrating a makeover of the world's most popular meat. Which gamble will determine the future of chicken?

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OL’ BLUE EYES: Paula Deen signed on as the spokesperson for Springer Mountain Farms in 2011.
  • Joeff Davis
  • OL’ BLUE EYES: Paula Deen signed on as the spokesperson for Springer Mountain Farms in 2011.

That meet and greet didn't last very long — Arrendale didn't particularly like lingering on the subject of vaccines — before I was on the road, headed to visit one of the Springer Mountain Farms contract growers. The naïve question I'd asked Hensley over the phone about "coming down to Springer Mountain Farm" has been made obsolete by the outsourcing of the actual farming. The whole poultry industry, more or less, works with contract growers, meaning individuals with land who own chicken houses and are contracted to raise the company's chickens, which the growers never technically own. Aside from operations like White Oak Pastures, which produce a tiny fraction of chickens compared to Fieldale, this is the industry standard for raising broilers.

"House" is a euphemism. The ones I was shown were industrial gray sheds about 500 feet long and 50 feet wide. Before I could step inside, I had to put on a white hazmat-style suit that went all the way over my shoes, a precaution to help prevent viruses from being introduced to the flock. Inside, I started to understand why so much of the industry needs antibiotics. The lights inside are dim, the air is thick and dank with ureic stink, and thousands upon thousands of white chickens are huddled inside. The industry standard, what some people call "factory farming," is to pack a chicken into nearly every square foot of a house like this one. As part of its American Humane Association Certification, Springer Mountain gives its birds a little more room than the industry standard — though I never got a straight answer about how much room — so the chickens can move a little more from one acrid end of the warehouse to the other. I was told that the house had roughly 27,000 chickens in it that day. The fact that they don't have to use antibiotics to help a chicken survive these places is certainly a scientific marvel, though it doesn't happen to be a very charming one.

The good news is that chickens don't have to live in these houses very long. It takes about six weeks for Springer Mountain birds to reach six pounds. Any variation in that time — just two or three days to make weight — means a loss of profit for Fieldale. When they're ready, they're loaded into cages on a semitruck and driven to one of Fieldale's processing plants.

I arrived at one of Fieldale's processing plants in Cornelia, Ga., the "Tomb" segment of the tour, in the afternoon. I put on some earplugs, a hairnet, and a long white coat and crossed the door into the slaughterhouse. For a place that kills and guts 150,000 chickens on a slow day, the scent is surprisingly benign, smelling vaguely like a large, chlorinated pool.

The room where chickens enter is chaotic. Cages come quickly off the trucks and, with them, a stream of squawking and flapping white birds that are rapidly racked upside down by their feet on a moving track that I can only compare to a chicken roller coaster. There's a team of strong men working just on this step of the operation, grabbing and racking, grabbing and racking as fast as they can. I had wanted to watch a single bird, to follow it through the plant as I had at White Oak, but there is no time for that sort of contemplation here. There are two of these roller coaster tracks and each carries more than 100 birds a minute.

Once they're hanging upside down, the roller coaster rides the chickens into a bath of electrified water, where they're stunned senseless. From the bath, they pass limply through a device that slits their necks with a rolling, circular blade. At this point, there's a man who stands watch while holding a knife. His job is to wait for a mistake, to observe these thousands of chickens as they pass him, bleeding out, to catch a neck that doesn't pass through the blade correctly and finish the job himself. At his feet, there is a lot of blood on the killing floor.

As the plant supervisor led me through the operation, I scribbled to note each industrialized innovation. The precisely 90-second bleed time, the exactly 128-degree bath the dead birds are given before being defeathered, the hot cutter that slices off chicken feet like a knife through butter. There was a carousel-like machine where chicken bodies would enter on one side and exit eviscerated on the other, their organs neatly collected in a brightly colored tray to correspond to each individual chicken. To be honest, I had a hard time keeping track of it all. Parts of my notes simply list nouns: "PUMPS TUBES LIVERS." There are USDA inspectors standing throughout the place, their eyes fixed on the chicken roller coaster while their hands hold clipboards. There are hundreds of employees working at any given time. The Cornelia plant employs almost 1,400 people. No number, though, compares to the thousands upon thousands of chickens, flying along on the roller coaster in a very different way than one would imagine a chicken actually flying. From start to finish, the process takes about 30 minutes.

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