Egg to Plate: The Life of a Chicken

  • Chicken in Your Kitchen

    Americans love their chicken. Rotisserie, fried, sautéed, in nugget form … in 2008 alone, 36.9 billion pounds of chicken were produced in the U.S., and the vast majority of them came out of large factory farms. So that got us thinking: What does it take to get a chicken from egg to grocery store? Here's a step-by-step rundown of the process, as well as few other juicy tidbits of information, including trade fights, production disagreements and some choice details about the processing poultry goes through before it gets to your mouth. Photo Credit: Machine is Organic
    Step 1: Egg Genesis
  • Step 1: Egg Genesis

    For simplicity’s sake, we’ll start with an egg. There are two types of eggs: unfertilized eggs which you buy in the store (and eventually scramble) and fertilized eggs that are hatched and grown into chickens. Both are formed inside a hen and laid. When breeding chickens for meat, mating and egg fertilization happens naturally. There’s no artificial insemination. Hens producing fertilized eggs for hatching lay between 165 and 180 within 65 weeks, says Dr. Doug Smith, Associate Professor at North Carolina State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “The egg exits the hen's body through the same passageway as feces is excreted,” explains the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Some egg-laying hen houses have floors that are sloped so that eggs can roll down them and be collected, others have conveyor belts. When raised for meat, some developing chicks get injections while still in the egg so they can be deemed “raised without antibiotics,” explains a report by the Natural News Network, a nonprofit group for consumer education. So consumers who are willing to spend a little more on antibiotic-free chicken or eggs may be unwitting victims of semantics. Photo Credit: lalouque
    Step 2:Egg Incubation
  • Step 2:Egg Incubation

    When fertilized eggs are laid, they’re usually artificially incubated at a temperature that simulates a hen sitting on it, explains Donald Conner, professor and head of the Auburn University Department of Poultry Sciencein Auburn, Ala. Fertilized eggs may be kept in a cool environment first to stall their development so several eggs can be incubated and hatched around the same time, Conner explains. Even before the chicks are born, hatchers know where the chicks are going and chicken farmers know about how big they’ll grow to be. The eggs are incubated in a place called the “setter” where they’re rotated periodically but kept at between 92 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Smith. About 18 days later, they’re moved to the “hatcher,” where they’ll hatch within three days. Photo Credit: robstephaustralia
    Step 3: A Chicken is Born
  • Step 3: A Chicken is Born

    When chickens that will be used for meat are hatched, they may be vaccinated right away if they haven’t already been treated while still in the shell, Conner says. Their beaks may be trimmed in a process called “debeaking,” sometimes with the use of a debeaking machine, before being sent to a hatchery as well. Vaccines may be administered starting day one, but there’s a specific schedule that stretches out to 12 weeks, according to the American Poultry Association. Debeaking has been a fairly common practice, since certain numbers of chickens in close quarters may fight for dominance (sometimes to the death). Photo Credit: toddlevy
    Step 4: Chicken Shipping and Housing
  • Step 4: Chicken Shipping and Housing

    Chicks are often transported by “chick buses,” which are basically older school buses modified to keep temperature regulated, to grower houses, and they’re slaughtered within about 56 days, according to Smith. That’s before they reach the egg-laying age range of 14 to 20 weeks. According to the National Chicken Council, however, “chickens are kept in houses that protect them from the elements, wild animals and wild birds.” But that housing also often means lack of sunlight as well. Photo Credit: pamramsey
    A Day With the Birds
  • A Day With the Birds

    The average grower house for meat birds measures 50 feet by 400 feet and holds 20,000 or more chickens depending on the size of the bird, says Dr. Smith. The average farm has about four houses, and they’re ventilated and artificially lit, but not brightly, so the chickens can eat and sleep on their own time. Workers attending to the houses check on the chickens at least once a day. American meat chickens are bred and fed to be big. Hens are “eating machines,” Conner says. They’re usually kept and fed in farm houses. At some farms, like that of Joel Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, chickens lead a freer life. Salatin says it’s vital to expose chickens to a natural environment including bugs, worms, green grass and sunshine as well as corn feed. “The average chicken is living in a dust cloud of fecal particulates,” says Salatin. “That puts a lot of stress on the immune system,” leading to lesions on the chickens that effectively become a “direct pathway for ammonia vapors directly into the blood stream,” Salatin adds. Unlike at Salatin’s farm, feed at factory farms often contains antibiotics as a preventive measure, but some poultry producers increasingly disagree with that practice, saying the need for them in the first place is caused by the environment they live in, poultry researchers say. What’s more, some corn feed may contain a hazardous chemical known as hexane, a petroleum byproduct that helps extract oil and vitamins from soybeans, explains Scott Sechler, Bell & Evans chairman and president on his blog. Sechler’s company uses hexane-free feed. Photo Credit: Caswell_Tom
    Step 5: Slaughter
  • Step 5: Slaughter

    When they reach their ideal size (which varies depending on the type of bird), they head to the slaughter house. That can be between about 35 days to 50 days from when they arrive at the farm house depending on their intended use. (Chickens meant for rotisserie are generally smaller, Conner says.) About 12 hours before slaughter, birds should no longer be fed, explains the Oklahoma State University Department of Animal Science. That prevents contamination from the digestive system. The chickens are generally hung upside down, their necks are cut by machines, their blood is drained and feathers, feet, head and guts are removed and the chicken is chilled. On average, about 250,000 chickens are “processed” at a plant this way every day, and there are about 100 to 120 processing plants in the United States, estimates Mike Lacy, professor and head of the Department of Poultry Science at the University of Georgia in Athens. Photo credit: Nanimo
    Step 6: Processing, Packing and Preparation
  • Step 6: Processing, Packing and Preparation

    In a large processing plant, carcasses are cut up and some cuts are deboned using various machines. Theycan also be weighed, sorted, priced and labeledby machine and the chicken is sent off to stores within hours of their slaughter. “All of the chickens that are being grown today … the meat from them is already sold. They know when those birds are going out for processing, and they’re going to a specific market,” says Conner. Even before a chick is hatched, hatchers, growers and processers know whether it will stay whole, be cut in pieces or further processed for ground chicken, nuggets, sliced chicken breast and other products to be served at restaurants or at home. They’re generally transported fresh, not frozen, in refrigerated trucks. How long the chicken has been dead before it gets to your table can vary depending on your proximity to a processing plant, but they can reach your grocery store within a day, and at most, should be consumed about 14 days after slaughter says Sam Pardue, head of the Department of Poultry Science at North Carolina State University. Photo Credit: Geoff604
    Chicken to Nugget
  • Chicken to Nugget

    Looking at the ingredients list of a processed chicken product, you’ll likely see the term “mechanically separated chicken.” Before it’s formed into what’s on your dinner table, it’s “a paste-like and batter-like meat product” made by forcing meaty bonesunder high pressure through a sieve,” according to the USDA. Have you ever wondered why turkey breast that you buy at the deli for sandwiches doesn’t look like the turkey breast you eat during thanksgiving or why chicken sausage doesn’t contain recognizable fibers of chicken meat? That’s because it’s mechanically separated and formed into different sizes and shapes to be served at your dinner table. Photo Credit: laverrue
    Chickens to Cross the Seas
  • Chickens to Cross the Seas

    Chinese poultry products have been banned from import since 2004 on avian flu worries. The U.S. plans to resume imports of chicken from China, assuming it passes inspections by the Department of Agriculture. Chicken from China may come cheaper than the domestic stuff, so fast food chains and other large companies may use it to cut their costs, according to WalletPop. According to the site’s research, Wendy’s as well as KFC and Popeye’s chicken chains plan on sticking with American chicken while McDonald’s is keeping its chicken sourcing options open. Photo Credit: Benghan
    American Chicken Feet
  • American Chicken Feet

    Many Americans like their head cheese and scrapple, but in China, chicken feet may be a dish of choice. And those skinny, webby feet bring in good money for the U.S. “About half of the chicken parts sold to China are wings and feet, which are worth only a few cents a pound in the United States,” reports The New York Times. “As delicacies in China, they fetch 60 cents to 80 cents a pound, a price that no other foreign market comes close to matching,” the paper says. Photo Credit: avlxyz
    Monster Paws
  • Monster Paws

    Since American chickens are bred for huge breasts, American chicken feet are big as well, to hold up all that meat. And besides at Chinese dim sumhouses in the U.S., there isn’t much demand for home-grown chicken feet here. And besides the profits American poultry processors get from the feet themselves, “Every additional pound of poultry the United States can produce for the overseas markets increases demand domestically for feed grains, oilseeds, and similar feed ingredients,” notes Peggy Vining, Vice President of International Operations at Perdue Farms in a report to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Photo Credit: scaredy_kat
    Bonus Tidbit: How They Make Nuggets
  • Bonus Tidbit: How They Make Nuggets

    Chicken nuggets are generally made of breast meat, fillers, stabilizers and possibly even beef fat, depending on the producer. At McDonald’s, nuggets contain gluten, eggs, milk and celery, according to the company’s U.K. Web site. And contrary to what you might think, chicken isn’t necessarily more healthful than beef- especially in the case of McNuggets. A four-piece order of chicken McNuggets contains 12 grams of fat compared with 9 grams of fat in regular hamburger, according to the fast food chain’s Web site. Photo Credit: yoppy
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