Deep in the heart of Mennonite country in PA, near Lewisburg, I visited one of the chicken farms that comprise the chicken company that is Murray’s Chicken. I was greeted by Steve Gold, of Murrays, Rob Clark and Steve Jones, of Clark’s Feed Mills, and John Hoover Jr - the Mennonite farmer whose father John Hoover Sr built the two chicken houses that Hoover Jr manages today. Aside from the attention, which I found very gratifying, the teachings shared by these experienced professionals was fascinating.
Relatively speaking Murrays is a small producer, though it did not feel that way to me standing in the chicken barn. The Hoover family raises 2 houses (500 x 48 feet) of 27,000 birds each for the million plus chickens that Murray’s processes a year. In 2010 according to the USDA, 36.9 billion lbs of broiler meat were produced. If we assume that each chicken weighed 5 lbs that is 7.38 billion birds a year, which is over 20 million birds killed a day in the United States.
Hoover’s farm is one part of a very systematic, very orchestrated system - all geared towards raising lots of chicken meat very efficiently. This organizational structure came about when integrators, according to the National Chicken Council, started consolidating the business of chicken raising in the 1940s. “The integrators reduced costs by coordinating the production capacity of each stage of production.”
What does, “coordinating the production capacity mean?” Well, for the Hoover family it means that they own their farm buildings and have a contract with Clark’s Feed Mill. Murray’s Chickens contracts with Clark’s Feed Mill to provide feed according to their formula and the demand of Murray’s. Clark’s provides the chicks (from breeders working with Murrays), the feed according to Murray’s recipe, and the support to their contracted farmers. At the end of 8 weeks the grown boilers are picked up for processing at Murray’s. Then John Hoover thoroughly cleans out the barns, replaces the sawdust, and awaits the new shipment of chicks from Clark’s.
So when I asked questions about the wider operations, it was mostly Steve Gold who responded. Such as:
So tell me about what it means to be Certified Humane?
Gold: Well, you can see we have toys in there for them, that is part of being Certified Humane. We are not GAP certified [Global Animal Partnership]. If you look at the GAP certification and the Certified Humane - Certified Humane is a lot stricter, they have higher protocols. Also GAP is only farm. Certified Humane is farm and plant and hatchery. They also certify us in terms of our processing. They certify everything here. Once the chickens leave on the truck they certify how many birds go in, how they are caught, how long the driver drives, if it is cold, if there are curtains at the top, etc etc.
Everything that Murray’s Chicken has done has been ahead of the market. We were the first antibiotic free, we were the first to be American Heart Association, we were the first to be Certified Humane. We have the lowest fat on our boneless breasts. Murray’s is the only chicken label approved by the USDA to have the word lean on our labels. What is great about our chicken is that - and tell your chefs - it has very little shrink. So when they cook the 3 lb chicken, it is almost coming out a 3 lb chicken.
How are your animals slaughtered?
Gold: Everything is Halal certified. They are slaughtered by hand by Muslims, they do the prayer. The reasons for the slaughter is that you have to make sure the animal feels no pain. So they were doing humane way way before anyone even knew the word humane. So that is why we don’t stun beforehand. And now there is a whole controversy with these gassing programs and stunning because they are saying that there are too many chickens going into the scalder that are still alive.
When did Murray’s stop using antibiotics?
Gold: 20 years ago. We were the first to not use antibiotics. We don’t want to give them antibiotics. They have more room to grown than in a conventional farm. It takes us 6-7 weeks to grow. Conventional farms are 4 or 5 weeks because they are giving them the antibiotics. Also their lights are on all the time because they want the chickens to eat. So there is a big difference because it takes us longer to grow and there is less birds, we are paying more to feed the chickens. You are dividing your overhead by 27,000 as opposed to 37,000 (birds). We keep the barns empty when we take a flock out. Some just put one in after another.
I thought the main reason growers use antibiotics is to protect against infections in the crowded conditions, you are saying it is because they grow bigger faster?
Gold: I would say that it is 99% of the reason they are giving animals antibiotics. They are telling everyone that it is therapeutic but it is really for growth.
The use of antibiotics in animal husbandry has been on the forefront of our national consciousness for a while. The media attention on this issue over the past few years, ranging from Fox News to the NY Times, has garnered the attention of the FDA. On December 11 the FDA released a plan to “help phase out the use of medically important antimicrobials in food animals for food production purposes, such as to enhance growth or improve feed efficiency.” Because, “antimicrobial drug use in both humans and animals can contribute to the development of antimicrobial resistance.” In other words, low doses of antibiotics fed to animals are most likely nurturing superbugs in humans and everyone agrees this is an issue worthy of amelioration.
But antibiotics is not something we need to worry about in Murray’s chickens - for neither Bard nor The New School.
Cheers to knowing where our food comes from!