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Inside Empire’s slaughterhouse: The life of a kosher chicken

The assembly line at Empire Kosher Poultry's plant in central Pennsylvania is the largest kosher one of its kind in America, with 240,000 chickens and 27,000 turkeys passing through every week. (Uriel Heilman)

MIFFLINTOWN, Pa. (JTA) – The end came swiftly for the chicken I’ll call Bob.

Propelled into a trough of sorts by a machine that tips a crate’s worth of birds onto the assembly line — “They’re like children, sliding down,” the head kosher supervisor said — chicken Bob was seized by a worker’s practiced hands and guided toward the shochet, or ritual slaughterer, along a stainless steel panel meant for calming the birds.

While a second worker held down his legs and body, the shochet gently grasped Bob’s head and, in what seemed like a split second, made his cut before the lifeless chicken was deposited into a funnel for the blood to drip out.

Every six seconds or so, another chicken followed.

The shochet, clad in a bloodstained yellow rain slicker and with a transparent plastic cap covering his hair and beard, swayed rhythmically as he worked, almost as if he were davening. Alongside him, 11 other teams of three, each led by its own shochet, labored methodically.

In all, 60,000 chickens would be killed by late afternoon. It’s all in a day’s work at Empire Kosher Poultry, the largest kosher chicken company in the United States.

Empire churns out 240,000 chickens and 27,000 turkeys a week, from quartered broilers to turkey salami. With a staff of 750, a fleet of two dozen trucks and a vertically integrated operation in central Pennsylvania where hatcheries, feed mills, farms and processing all come together, Empire says it produces a healthier, cleaner, more reliably kosher chicken than available anywhere else in America — and in a socially and environmentally responsible way.

To back up its claims, Empire agreed to give JTA a first-ever camera tour of its facilities, providing unfettered access to everything from the kill room to the farms to the assembly line where chickens and turkey are sliced, processed and packaged into all manner of raw poultry, nuggets, cold cuts and hot dogs. The only restriction was that JTA was not permitted to photograph the kill room or certain proprietary methods.

The recent tour had two ostensible purposes. One was to draw an implicit contrast with other kosher food companies in the news. While managers declined to get specific, the most infamous industry example is Agriprocessers, the Iowa-based kosher meat giant that was felled in 2008 amid a host of financial crimes and labor and safety violations following years of negative media reports. Agriprocessors’ former CEO, Sholom Rubashkin, is serving a 27-year prison sentence for financial fraud and money laundering. (He has appealed for a new trial, arguing that the judge was biased.)

Second, and perhaps not unrelated, Empire officials say they are considering expanding into the kosher meat market — something the company once did, albeit without great success. With plans on the drawing board to go back into beef within a year — Empire would buy already slaughtered cuts of meat and build a business around processing — the company is launching a public relations campaign to tout its approach to chicken production, including advertisements in the Jewish media.

A private company with annual revenues over $100 million, Empire says the ways it raises its chickens and treats its workers are the keys to the company’s success.

Since 2008, Empire’s chickens have been antibiotic free, and the company now has an organic line available at retailers such as Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods. Empire’s workers are unionized — a rarity in the kosher business — with salaries ranging from $8 to $11.40 per hour, and health, vision and dental plans. Empire is a graduate of the U.S. Department of Labor’s OSHA Challenge program — the Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s initiative to improve workplace safety and health management — and the company employs an on-site nurse. Over the past 10 years, the company has invested more than $2.5 million in a wastewater treatment facility that recycles its effluents.

“There is a better standard in that plant in terms of the conditions of the workers and the way they’re treated — not just physical conditions — compared to other chicken poultry processors,” said Wendell Young, president of UFCW Local 1776, the union that represents Empire’s employees.

In an interview with JTA, Rabbi Morris Allen, the program director of the Conservative-backed seal of ethical kosher food production that will be rolled out this fall, said that Empire’s practices appear to make it a good fit for the Magen Tzedek seal, which guarantees certain standards for treatment of workers, animals and the environment. Allen visited the Empire plant several months ago.

What has enabled Empire to be profitable, company officials say, is its vertically integrated operation. From conception to supermarket, Empire approaches its chicken operation with scientific precision.

“We hatch our own eggs, feed them with our own blend of feed from our feed mill and keep close watch as they grow. We have control from conception until packaging — no third parties,” said Greg Rosenbaum, the company’s CEO. “We can say to the world that humane standards had been applied at every stage.”

It all starts with breeding. While companies like Purdue may breed chickens for large breasts because breast meat is in highest demand, Empire’s chickens are bred for kashrut. That means large breasts could add weight that damages the chicken’s tendons, rendering the chickens treif, or unkosher, when slaughtered. No growth hormones are administered; hormone use for poultry is illegal in the United States.

“We worked over the years to get the breed just right,” said Jeff Brown, Empire’s chief operating officer, told JTA over a chicken lunch. “It was developed specifically for kosher processing.”

At Empire’s hatchery, the temperature, humidity and duration of incubation is strictly calibrated to ensure maximum yield. Eggs are turned every hour on the hour to keep the chicks inside from sticking to the eggshells. Once the eggs hatch — 82 percent will — the chicks are inoculated against avian sicknesses such as Marek’s disease and coccidian before being trucked to farms spread out over five Pennsylvania counties, all within 90 miles of the Mifflintown plant.

Area farmers raise the chickens, but Empire dictates and remotely monitors how the chickens are housed and provides all the feed. It takes approximately 1.8 pounds of feed — mostly corn, but also some soy meal and other ingredients — to grow a pound of chicken. The birds’ diet is strictly vegetarian and kosher for Passover all year round.

When the chickens are 38 to 48 days old, they are loaded onto crates and trucked to the plant for slaughter.

The workforce at Empire’s plant is full of incongruities. More than a third of the farmers who raise the kosher chickens are Mennonites. Rosenbaum, the CEO, is a Reform Jew who does not keep kosher. Rabbi Israel Weiss, the head mashgiach, or kosher inspector, writes Hebrew science fiction novels in his spare time under a pen name. The staff is filled with Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians whose familiarity with kashrut — and the Yiddish terminology that surrounds it — exceeds that of some religious Jews.

“For the first year-and-a-half it was a total learning experience,” said Neenah Glenn Lauver, a Mifflintown native who works as Empire’s director of product marketing. “Even still, I’m learning things about the culture we serve.”

A phalanx of rabbis works at the plant, living on-site in dormitories during the week and spending weekends at home with their families in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia or Lakewood, N.J. The plant has its own mikvah, or ritual bath, where the shochets immerse before beginning their workday, and a shul with multiple morning minyans and evening classes. The father of Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old Chasidic boy from Borough Park, Brooklyn, who was abducted and murdered last month, used to work at the plant as a mashgiach.

In deference to the shochets and mashgiachs, the assembly line does not run on Fridays so they can get home for Shabbat. In deference to the assembly floor workers, the plant also closes on the first day of buck hunting season.

A typical day starts in the kill room at 4 a.m., but it involves frequent breaks for the shochets so they can stay fresh; no shochet works more than five hours in a given day.

“Shechitah is a very complex job, you have to be rested,” said Rabbi Aron Taub, a shochet from Baltimore who has worked at the plant since 1989. “It’s not like doing any other physical job. You have to have a lot of concentration.”

Approximately every five minutes, a light goes on signaling the shochets to stop their work and check their knives for nicks. If a shochet finds an imperfection, all the chickens from the last few minutes are discarded. That goes not just for his work but for all the hundreds of chickens killed by the shochets during that period because the birds are mixed in together. The reason is kashrut: If a single shochet’s work could be singled out, he theoretically could come under pressure to compromise his standards to achieve a better pass rate. That’s a conflict of interest. In the contest between efficiency and kashrut, kashrut always wins.

As the chickens move along the assembly line, a mashgiach inspects every yolk sack and tray of intestines for treif characteristics. When a mashgiach finds a slaughtered chicken that has a suspicious bulge on its yolk sack, he pulls it off the line for further scrutiny. Another rabbi making rounds takes a closer look, sometimes slicing open tumor-like lumps to look for telltale signs of treif. Birds that are disqualified are sold to companies that make dog food.

There are USDA inspectors on-site, too, but the rabbis remove about five times as much poultry from the assembly line as the government inspectors.

On the assembly line, the birds are soaked for 30 minutes in tap water before they are salted for an hour and then triple rinsed. A machine pulls open the necks to drain the blood. Another cuts open the wingtips so water can get in.

As the chickens move along, a steel rod dislodges the windpipe and eviscerates the bird. A machine with rapidly spinning, finger-like protrusions removes the feathers. Plucking a kosher chicken is more difficult for kosher producers because the warm water used by producers of treif chicken to remove feathers cannot be used in the kosher process.

Eventually, the finished products are wrapped whole, cut up or processed into foods like turkey pastrami, all-breast chicken nuggets or Empire’s seasoned chicken in a bag, which cooks in a microwave in 20 minutes.

With a limited shelf life, the chickens are rushed onto refrigerated trucks to delivery points across the country on the same day they are killed. Some long-haul trucks have tandem drivers so they can drive nonstop all the way to California. A chicken slaughtered in Pennsylvania on a Tuesday can make it to a supermarket shelf in Los Angeles by Thursday.

Just in time for chicken Bob to end up on your Shabbat table.