It used to be that if the preacher said he was coming for dinner, a chicken met its maker before lunch.
Cooking up a fresh bird was the on-farm version of fast food long before Colonel Sanders hit the scene with his Kentucky Fried franchise. A hen could contribute to the family’s breakfast and still be on the table for the main meal.
Having its neck wrung or head chopped off is obviously a no-win situation for the bird, but in the care of a deft farmhand, at least its suffering was limited to a matter of seconds from the time it was scooped out of the chicken coop.
And it was arguably more humane than modern processing methods that entail catching and loading the birds into cages and transporting them to a slaughterhouse, where they endure a panicked few moments hung in shackles by the feet with their wings flapping frantically, dipped into water and stunned with electrical current before being bled out and eviscerated.
“I really don’t like the shackles,” said Wim Van Stuyvenberg, a slaughterhouse systems designer with TopKip B.V. in the Netherlands, noting it is not only painful, but frightening. “I really feel sorry for the birds.”
But in the modern world in which most consumers no longer have the interest or the capacity to produce and process their own food, meat processing is all about volume, speed and efficiency. Measures are taken to keep birds’ suffering to a minimum, but animal welfare groups are constantly pressuring industry and regulators to do more.
Nowhere has that pressure been more intense than Europe, and in particular, the Netherlands. There standards for treatment of animals in the livestock industry are routinely much more stringent than required by European Union regulations, which are already the toughest in the world.
Making those last few moments of an animal’s life as stress free and painless as possible is an increasingly complex task for the meat industry, but in the Netherlands, it has also spawned some welfare-friendly innovations that coincidentally also improve meat quality.
As of Jan. 1, 2013 new EU regulations upped the electrical current poultry processors are required to use in the water-bath stunning systems in order to make extra sure all birds are unconscious before entering the processing line.
“For a slaughterhouse, it is a complete disaster,” said Van Stuyvenberg, adding that the new regulations have exacerbated two problems with existing poultry slaughter designs.
In commonly used water-bath stunning systems, the electrical current travels from head to toe, jolting the entire bird. In an increased number of instances, the higher current essentially “blows up the bird,” as the electrocuting forces cause blood vessels to burst, causing blood splatter and reducing carcass quality, he said.
Van Stuyvenberg said the second problem with existing systems is that it applies the same force to every bird, which in many cases leads to overkill. Regardless of size, all birds differ in the electrical current needed to render them unconscious. To use a human analogy, it is not unlike the need for anesthesia levels to be uniquely tailored to each surgical patient.
He has come up with a system that rectifies both issues, and which provides more comfort for the birds as well.
From the Manitoba Co-operator website: Public pressure will continue on animal welfare
Cradles, not shackles
Rather than restraining the birds with shackles before stunning, the TopKip system cradles the birds in a cone, which is more soothing.
A computerized paddle on each side of the bird’s head measures the resistance (measured as ohms) and delivers precisely as much punch as needed to render the bird unconscious for 30 seconds. The electrical current only travels through the head, leaving carcass quality intact.
Using the same principle, Van Stuyvenberg is working on portable euthanasia devices for use in poultry and hog barns. In the prototype, the euthanizer is worn on the hips like a gun holster. A small animal can be dropped into the cradle and euthanized within seconds, replacing the effective but socially unpopular practice of bashing their heads on hard surfaces.
“It’s actually very simple. We know the voltage, we know the currency that we give. We don’t know the resistance. As soon as electrodes touch the head, immediately the computer starts to calculate the resistance,” he said.
An added bonus is the poultry line system records the electrical dose delivered to each bird, at a line rate of 13,500 birds per hour, data that can be stored and reviewed for quality control. Plus, the system can easily be modified to meet requirements for halal and kosher meats, in which the animals must be conscious at the time of slaughter.
Mountain View Poultry in Okotoks, Alta., which raises and processes its own broilers, will be the first in Canada to use the new stunning system when it reopens early this year after a renovation.
Owner Jonathan Kielstra said the advantages are worth the $150,000 cost — a fifteenfold increase over a stunning system. “The biggest thing is, I really feel it is more humane,” Kielstra said.
The cradle cones are less stressful for the birds than being hung upside down by their legs. “They tend to relax when you cradle them,” he said.
“I like the fact that every bird gets stunned individually,” he said. And it is only the head that receives the current, not the full body, which should result in better quality.
Kielstra is also considering another of TopKip’s innovations — a carcass-chilling process that uses a combination of air and water baths to significantly reduce the time it takes to chill a carcass after slaughter.
The family-owned firm which processes 30,000 birds per week for specialty markets in Alberta hopes to make its upgraded processing methods into a marketing advantage. Consumers may be far removed from the production chain, but they still care about process. “I think we’ll be able to advertise it,” he said.
Co-operator editor Laura Rance travelled to the Netherlands in December courtesy of the Dutch government to see how the animal industry is adapting to stringent animal welfare, environmental and food safety requirements.