Mary Pitman fidgets when she enters the area of her Sanger, Calif., poultry-processing plant where the chickens are killed. She prefers "processed" or even "put to sleep"—anything other than a word relating to death.
"I've never liked the way it's been done," says the owner and namesake of Pitman Family Farms, whose products include free-range chicken, turkey and duck. Her fidgeting is, in a way, part of what has led the company to invest millions of dollars in a PETA-endorsed method for ending the birds' lives.
On the surface, it may seem strange that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals—which believes the world's population should refrain from harming animals in any way and eat only vegan diets—would advocate a method for the delivery of a living animal to a dinner plate. But, as PETA media specialist Ashley Gonzalez says, "we want to eliminate the worst suffering chickens are enduring right now. They're going to be killed, and if we can do it in a less cruel way, companies should be doing it."
The process Pitman will begin using next month is the second of its kind in the United States, and the first west of the Mississippi. The Anglia Autoflow CAS (controlled atmosphere stunning) is as far a cry from current slaughter methods as one can get with the end result still being a dead bird. Currently, the most popular method involves hanging birds by their feet on hooks, which carries them by conveyor belt to an electrified water bath, then individually prodding each bird (by hand) with a high-voltage barbecue fork to ensure a lifeless entry to the packaging facility. Even then, according to PETA, some are still alive when their throats are slit.
The CAS method involves no hanging, no bath, no prodding. Birds are loaded into a large crate (about 110 pounds in each) and taken by conveyor into a "gas tunnel," where carbon dioxide gas replaces oxygen and causes death within 60 to 70 seconds. "It's far more humane than what happens to birds now," says Gonzalez. "With these new systems, it eliminates the chance for a chicken to be scalded to death."
Pitman Farms currently uses elements to make the process as humane as possible, including the use of red lights and a plate along the conveyor to rub the breasts of the birds, which puts them in a near-catatonic stupor before they are processed. But even that does not sit well with Mary, who does eat chicken but, like most of us, doesn't like to think of certain steps in the process from farm to table.
The birds are raised to above-required government standards for free-range chickens. Pitman applies the Five-Step Animal Welfare Rating by the Global Animal Partnership. One of Pitman's farms in the Central Valley, a level three, gives the birds access to leave the spacious, temperature-regulated coop and "enrichments in housing," which include branches of eucalyptus hung from the ceiling to just above the birds' heads and hay bales to play on. Visitors wear a zip-up suit reminiscent of footed pajamas and hairnets, as well as plastic covering for shoes, to avoid any possible contamination.
At the level-five farm, birds are brought up with the same care as are schoolchildren. Baby chicks are raised in small U-Haul-style trailers and placed in new ones in one-week intervals to make room for new chicks and to keep the older ones with birds their own age. After six weeks, they are housed in an open trailer in a fenced area with both shade and outdoor access. Trailers are moved every three days to ensure the birds don't get used to living inside.
The resulting bird looks like a normal chicken—an unusual sight in the poultry-processing business. Many chickens, including Petaluma Poultry's Rocky Jr., lack enough feathers to safely go outside the coop before they are slaughtered. Birds at Pitman's level-three farm are more sparsely covered than an average bird, but are still able to roam free.
The level-five birds are in such high demand, says Geoff Green, Pitman Farms marketing specialist, that the company sometimes has to turn away orders. Despite the $6 per-pound price tag in stores, it's tough to keep up with demand, he said. Currently, about a thousand birds a week can be produced for sale using this method, but expansion plans are imminent.
If Mary's vision catches on—and the popularity of the company's most humanely raised (and most expensive) products indicate it's possible—the birds we eat will soon be treated more like humans than some house pets. If it remains a niche market, however, natural poultry producers may end up fighting for market share. This may hit home hardest in Petaluma, an area once known as the "chicken capital of the world," still renowned for its agriculture and as the namesake of nationally sold products by natural-poultry pioneer Petaluma Poultry (which is now owned by food giant Coleman, soon to be sold to Perdue, the third largest poultry-processing company in the country).
Furthermore, Mary's Free Range Chicken will soon be the primary option and one of just two brands available in California Whole Foods markets. "We're aligning with smaller-scale California producers as a way to secure and expand our supply," explains Whole Foods Northern California meat coordinator Dan Neuerbrug, via email. The company is also offering birds from Field to Family, a Petaluma company, but appears to be noncommittal about Petaluma's most well-known chicken producer.
"We're looking at new opportunities for unique items from Petaluma Poultry," Neuerbrug writes. (Petaluma Poultry was unable to answer questions about its processing method before press time.)
Like Pitman Farms chickens, birds at Fulton Valley Farms are given outdoor access, fed a vegetarian diet and live in coops with enriched growing conditions. But the company isn't growing, having laid off over 120 employees last year when its processing plant on River Road in Santa Rosa closed last year after it became too expensive to truck the birds there from the Central Valley. Their birds are now raised and processed in the Central Valley, 40 miles north and south of Turlock, says a spokesperson for the company.
Still, the long-term viability of Mary's chickens will rely upon consumer demand, which hinges on product quality. Slick marketing and warm, fuzzy feelings only go so far in the culinary world, where the bottom line boils down to taste. If raising an animal with compassion makes it taste better, it's a safe bet that those in charge of the large factory farms will take another look at how things are done.
"Chefs out there want nothing but the best," says Green, whose job is to convince chefs to spend a little more on his birds. "But there are some who believe chicken is chicken and it's not worth the price."