We all vaguely realize that our culture has built a wall between the food we get in the grocery store and the farm on which it was raised. Nevertheless, an introduction to how chickens become chicken breasts can come as a shock. But since I love chicken as much as the next guy it felt like I should be willing to take part in how it gets to my plate.
That is how I arrived one morning on a local farm to participate in the harvesting of 150 chickens. This is not the factory farm of meat production horror stories. These chickens have been raised outside, eating bugs and plants from the fields. They now strut around in a temporary fenced area pecking at the ground and occasionally one another. A group of farm employees stand outside in the sun around tables covered by white awnings. I am given a position toward the beginning of the line of tables.
Four metal cones mounted at chest height to a horizontal 2×6 glint in the sun. These are the so-called killing cones. A young woman walks toward us from the direction of the chicken enclosure, a chicken held upside down by the feet in each hand. She swings them gently as she walks…they barely move. It turns out that when upside down the blood rushes to their heads, making them docile and sleepy.
The birds are inserted head-first into a cone so that their head and neck hang down toward the ground from the narrow bottom of the cone. A quick razor swipe to the artery in the neck and it is done. The blood flows into a bucket on the ground and the bird is dead.
The assembly line nature of the production line now takes over. The birds are quickly dunked into scalding hot water to help with feather removal but not so long that they begin to cook. They are then put into a large stainless steel tub two at a time. The tub has rubber fingers on its interior walls. It is a magical machine. One person holds a water hose to spray into the tub. The other pushes a button and the tub begins to rotate like a giant centrifuge. The chickens tumble around inside. Ten seconds later, 95 percent of the feathers have spilled out onto a small chute in the bottom of the tub and the birds inside now look very much like what you see wrapped in cellophane in the grocery store. Two to three minutes from live chicken to grocery store chicken.
Now the hard work begins. All of the small remaining feathers need to be hand plucked. While most of feathers are gone the small ones around the head and tail can be stubborn. With a bit of persistence all the feathers are now gone. Then the chicken moves down the line having its innards removed, head and feet removed all while ensuring that each cutting board is carefully sanitized between each and every bird. Finally it reaches the end of the table. A perfect whole bird ready to roast.