by Melissa Elkins, Sustainability Coordinator
Photos Courtesy of Tecumseh Poultry
In October 2018, Co-op Sustainability Coordinator, Melissa Elkins, visited Smart Chicken / Tecumseh Poultry in Nebraska to see the operation firsthand.
Of course, she couldn't resist a quick selfie with this fiber art chicken that resides in the CEO's office!
Photo by Melissa Elkins
Co-op staff tour farms and facilities to gain insight and expertise on the products we sell and to ensure quality standards are being upheld.
In early October, Melissa Arbiter, Downtown store meat manager; James Aikins, former Downtown store kitchen manager; and I visited Tecumseh Poultry in Nebraska, more commonly known as Smart Chicken. All of us wanted to learn more about why their company is an industry leader that sets the highest standard for humane chicken processing in the United States.
an industry leader that sets the highest standard for humane chicken processing
Our tour started at one of their organic farms, located just a few miles from their production facility in Tecumseh. We suited up (you cannot enter chicken farms without taking biosecurity measures) and headed out to tour one of the barns and talk to the farm’s veterinarian and nutritionist.
Their organic chickens are housed in enormous barns, with doors that allow access to the outdoors. They house several thousand fewer birds in each house than required by organic standards or for Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC) certification.
Since its inception, Smart Chicken has exceeded the requirements for organic certification, as evidenced by the above photo taken many years ago of one of Smart Chicken’s original organic buildings. With doors along the entire length of the barn—instead of only one large door, which was the standard for organic and free-range certification at the time—it encouraged birds to range freely.
We learned that the chickens eat locally sourced grains and that they love to play! Each house has a variety of “toys” for the chickens to interact with, but their favorites are buckets with the ends cut out. The vet said they love running through the “tunnel.”
We couldn’t go into area of the barn where the chickens were, due to biosecurity measures, but we did get to peek through the control room window to check out the occupants, who were well-spaced and happily clucking along.
Melissa Arbiter, Melissa Elkins, and James Aikins from the Co-op (pictured at far right in stylish blue jumpsuits) were joined by representatives from Lassens Natural Foods & Vitamins and Smart Chicken for a tour of Tecumseh Organic Chicken Farm in Tecumseh, Nebraska. The group had complete access to all facets of the operation during their tour.
After touring the farm, we headed back to town to Tecumseh’s production facility, which was expanded by 50 percent in 2015. We once again suited up for a tour with David Carnagey who has worked for Smart Chicken since 2005.
I was a little nervous. While I have seen animals being sacrificed for consumption in the past, it had never been on the level that we were about to witness—Smart Chicken processes roughly 300,000 birds a week. However, my fears were unfounded.
When the chickens arrive from the farm, they are loaded onto a giant conveyor that leads them into the only controlled atmosphere stunning operation (aka, slow induction anesthesia) in the U.S.
considered the most humane system for the chickens
Smart Chicken uses carbon dioxide to put the chickens to sleep prior to being harvested rather than bolt stunning which opens the door to a lot of human error and is exactly what it sounds like. Not only is anesthesia considered the most humane system for the chickens, it is also the most humane method for the employees and I can attest to that firsthand.
Every door was opened, every question was answered, and every process was witnessed firsthand.
We walked the entire processing line with 100 percent transparency about the operation. Every door was opened, every question was answered, and every process was witnessed firsthand. The facility was incredibly clean, well lit, and well managed and they even let us tour their water processing facility across the street, which they had never done before.
After the production facility and farm, there was only one step left—packaging. We traveled about 40 miles to Waverly, Nebraska, to see the packaging facility. We declined a tour of the floor as the workers were slicing and dicing and we didn’t want to distract them. Instead we spent our time in the state-of-the art control room that overlooked the entire facility and that basically negated the need for a tour.
Every chicken is scanned upon entering the facility, so it can be graded and sorted. Every chicken is also hand trimmed, which is also pretty unique to the Smart Chicken operation as most packaging facilities employ fewer people and more automated cutters. It was mesmerizing watching the skilled employees perfectly cut each bird into specified cuts in record time and send it down the line to be wrapped, packaged, and shipped to stores across the nation.
Across the parking lot from the packaging facility are the home offices. We sat down with CEO Kevin Siebert to ask about things that weren’t covered in the tour, mainly labor practices, as we had already witnessed what I believe to be the most humane and progressive chicken processing operation in the country.
It was great to hear about the staff demographics; roughly 2/3 of their workforce are people of color, about half of their staff are women, they pay for continued education for employees, offer great wages and incentives, and turnover is low for the industry. Not only that, but the staff we met seemed to enjoy and appreciate the company they work for.
there really is a Smart Chicken difference
At the end of the day, there really is a Smart Chicken difference. It is rare for any national company that sells meat products to be 100% transparent and Tecumseh Farms is just that.
Its chickens (and employees) are treated like they matter, because they do.
The Smart Chicken Difference
- Cage-free and Free Roam
- Air Chilled*
- Controlled Atmosphere Stunning
- Third Party certified
- GAP certified
- Safe Quality Foods level 3 certification
- Certified Humane (HFAC)**
- Location Raised: IA/NE
- Domestic Grain, sourced from region
- Hand Trimmed
- Vegetarian Fed
- Handpicked for transport
*as opposed to water chilled, where 100,000 chickens are soaked in chlorine baths; up to 15% of that chlorinated water is absorbed by the chicken, and then by the consumer
**certified organic line only
Differences between Organic and Antibiotic-free (ABF) lines:
- Organic line is fed certified organic grains grown in the region; ABF line is fed grains grown in the region and synthetic amino acids are added to the feed.
- There are roughly 2,000–3,000 more birds in the ABF barns and they do not have access to the outdoors, more due to their size, age, life span, and heritage rather than an unwillingness to provide them with free-range access; while their standard of living is still well above that of most other ABF chicken farms, it also disqualifies them from HFAC certification.
Every other attribute is identical in both the Organic and ABF lines.