Sanderson Farms poultry processing plant in Summit handles an average of 250,000 chickens daily, which is a typical amount. / Special to The Clarion-Ledger
Thousands of chickens zip overhead on a series of conveyors that turn live animals into food.
I’m at the Sanderson Farms poultry processing plant on Friday, just outside Summit, where more than 1 million birds are killed, cut and packaged each week before going to restaurants and grocery stores throughout the United States.
It’s my first visit at such a facility, and I’m nervous. I’ve just skimmed hundreds of federal inspection reports detailing food safety violations at various Mississippi plants, and I envision a bloody slaughterhouse splattered with feces and smelling of fear.
It probably didn’t help that I had read Upton Sinclair’s shockingly controversial book about the meat packing industry, “The Jungle,” in college, either.
The Sanderson Farms plant, though, offers a case study in contrast. It is clean, well-lit and highly automated. Workers dress appropriately in smocks and gloves. Federal inspectors abound.
Chickens do die, though, and you might want to stop reading if that upsets you, because I’m going to describe the process from start to finish.
Sanderson contracts with about 200 mostly family farms that raise its chicks to 49 days when they’ve reached roughly 6.5 pounds. They’re then loaded into crates, stacked on semi-trailers and delivered to the plant.
I saw several chicken-loaded trucks outside the facility during my visit. When it’s time, one of them backs into the loading dock where the crates tilt over a conveyor belt. The doors open and the chickens slide out.
They ride the belt into the building, entering the one room that is dimly lit to mimic nighttime conditions, which puts the birds at ease. They mill about on the belt until one of several workers grabs them by the feet and hoists them onto hooks above.
Now hanging upside down, the chickens ride the new conveyor onto the slaughter floor. They’re calm and quiet, thanks in part to a rubber flap resting against their chest that makes it feel like they’re being held.
The conveyor takes them to an electrified bath that, once their heads touch it, instantly anesthetizes them.
This part is hard to watch. I resist the urge to rescue a bird from the conveyor, race to the nearest exit and toss it into the sunlight. But I’m apparently alone in my discomfort. Ignorant of their fate, the chickens ride the belt without ado.
If I had attempted such a stunt, a video surveillance camera would have captured it. The company constantly records all areas in which live chickens are handled to further bolster humane treatment.
After the bath renders them unconscious and unable to feel, the upside-down birds go through a device that slits their jugular veins. They bleed out while traveling over a trough to collect their blood.
Workers confirm each bird is dead before it enters a tub of scalding water that softens the skin. This makes it easier for the picking machine to remove all the feathers and the singeing machine to burn off the remaining hairs.
By the time the chickens exit this part of the facility, still upside-down on the conveyor, they’ve already had two sanitation rinses to eliminate germs.
A machine now removes their heads. Another removes their feet — they’ll go to Hong Kong as a specialty item. And workers remove the oil sacs at the tail.
The birds then are eviscerated by a machine that gently scoops their guts and leaves them hanging outside the carcass.
Inspectors check the guts for signs of disease and condemn any suspicious bird. Those fit for consumption continue down the line for yet another inspection.
They then enter a mini carwash where brushes scrub the outside of the birds before entering yet another machine that sprays high pressured water inside and outside the carcasses.
One more inspection — if any feces remains on the bird, this is where they’ll find it — and then it’s on to a quick sanitizing spray before entering the chiller.
The chiller is a vat of cold, chlorinated water that drops the carcass’s temperature from 105 degrees to the mid-30s to prevent spoilage. It takes about two hours.
Cold carcasses exit the chiller on a fast-moving conveyor belt that separates each one by weight, sending different sized birds to different automated cutting lines.
Whole birds are shrink-wrapped. Others are cut first by machine and then by hand into breasts, thighs, legs and butterfly fillets. They’re packaged and weighed and priced and boxed and shipped.
Customers usually have the finished product within 24 hours of the birds’ arrival at the plant.
Human workers populate each step of the process, checking for accuracy and performing various duties not yet replaced by machines. The Summit plant employs about 1,300 workers whose hourly wages start at roughly $13 per hour.
The entire operation is surprisingly clean and efficient. Only once did I see blood on the floor. Only once did I see any chicken on the floor — a piece of fat fell from a conveyor belt above, splat. And a sophisticated ventilation system prevents condensation and keeps the air clean and cool.
Every night, the whole facility is broken down and scrubbed and sanitized and reassembled under the watchful eyes of inspectors.
Would I eat off the floor? No. But I wouldn’t eat off the floor of The Clarion-Ledger, either. I would, however, eat the chicken.
To contact Emily Le Coz, call (601) 961-7249 or follow @emily_lecoz on Twitter.