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August 12, 2011     Heritage Florida Jewish News
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HERITAGE FLORIDA JEWISH NEWS, AUGUST 12, 2011 PAGE 17A Inside Empire's slaughterhouse: The life of a kosher chicken By 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 chickenwas deposited into ~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 rhythmi- cally 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 after- noon. 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 staffof 750, a fleet of two dozen trucks and a vertically integrated operation in central Pennsyl- vania where hatcheries, feed mills, farms and processing all cometogether, Empire says it produces a healthier, cleaner, more reliably kosher chicken than available anywhere else in America--and in a socially and environmentally respon- sible 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 os- tensible purposes. One was to draw an implicit contrastwith other kosher food companies in the news. While manag- ers 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 al- ready slaughtered cuts of meat and build a business around processing--the company ms launching a public relations campaign to tout its approach to chicken production, includ- ing 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 chick- ens have been antibiotic free. and the company now has an organic line available at retail- ers such as Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. Empire's work- • ers are unionized--ararity in the kosher business--with salaries ranging from $8 to $11.40 per hour, and health, vision and dental plans. Em- pire is a graduate of the U.S. Department of Labor's OSHA Challenge program the Oc- cupational 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 awastewater treat- ment 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 pro- gram director of the Conser- vative-backed seal of ethical kosher food production that will be rolled out this fall, said that Empire's practices appear to mike it a good fit for the Magen Tzedek seal, which guarantees certain standards for treatment af 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 chick- en 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 dam- ages the chicken's tendons, rendering the chickens treif, or unkosher, when slaugh- tered. 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 are 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 sick- nesses such as Marek's disease and coccidian before being trucked to farms spread out over five Pennsylvania coun- ties, 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 fa- miliarity 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 Mifflirltown native who works as Empire's director of product market- ing. "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 mur- dered 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 sothey can stay fresh; no shochet works more than five hours in a given day. "Shechitah is a very com- plex 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." Uriel Hei[man The assembly line at EmpireKosher Poultrlfs plant in central Pennsylvania is the larg- est kosher one of its kind in America, with 240,000 chickens and 27,000 turkeys passing through every week. Uriel Heilman Jeff Brown, Empire's chief operating officer, holds a package of boneless chicken breasts that has reached the end of the assembly line. Uriel Heilman The knives used by ritual slaughterers must be checked every few minutes during use and can cost up to $300. Approximately every five a suspicious bulge on its yolk chicken is more difficult for minutes, a light goes on sig- sack, he pulls it off the line kosherproducersbecausethe naling the shochets to stop, for further scrutiny. Another warm water used by produc- their work and check their rabbi making rounds takes a ers of treifchicken to remove knives for nicks. If a shochet closer look, sometimes slic- feathers cannotbeusedinthe finds an imperfection, all the ing open tumor-like lumps to kosher process. chickens from the last few look for telltale signs of treif. Eventually, the finished minutes are discarded. That Birds that are disqualified are products are wrapped whole, goes not just for his work but sold to companies that make cut up or 'processed into for all the hundreds of chick- dog food. foods like turkey pastrami, ens killed by the shochets dur- There are USDA inspectors all-breast chicken nuggets or ing that period because the on-site, too, but the rabbis re- Empire's seasoned chicken in birds are mixed in together, moveaboutfivetimesasmuch abag, which cooks in a micro- The reason is kashrut: If a poultryfromtheassemblyline wave in 20 minutes. singleshochet'sworkcouldbe asthegovernmentinspectors. With a limited shelf life, singled out, he theoretically On the assembly line, the the chickens are rushed onto could come under pressure birds are soaked for 30 min- refrigeratedtruckstodelivery to compromise his standards utes in tap water before they points across the country on to achieve a better pass rate. aresaltedforanhourandthen the same day they are killed. That'sa conflict of interest.In triple rinsed. A machine pulls S0me 10ng.haul trucks have the contestbetween efficiency ,open the necks to drain the tandem drivers so.they car and kashrut, kashrut always blood. Another cuts open the drive nonstop all the way wins. wingtips so water can getin, to California. A chicken As the chickens move As the chickens move slaughtered in Pennsylvania along the assembly line, a along, a steel rod dislodges on a Tuesday can make it to mashgiach inspects every the windpipe and eviscerates a supermarket shelf in Los yolk sack.and tray of intes- the bird. A machine with Angeles by Thursday. tines fortreifcharacteristics, rapidly spinning, finger-like Just in time for chicken When a mashgiach finds a protrusions removes the Bob to endup onyour Shah- slaughtered chicken that has feathers. Plucking a kosher bat table.