“When you grab a chicken, turn it upside down and put it on the line, it’s stress, stress, stress,” said Scott Sechler, the owner of Bell & Evans. “Our system is designed so that we put them to sleep without stress and we kill them without stress.”
That is sure to appeal to a segment of the chicken-buying public. But telling them about it presents a marketing challenge.
“Most of the time, people don’t want to think about how the animal was killed,” said David Pitman, whose family owns Mary’s Chickens.
Anglia Autoflow, the company that is building the knock-out systems for the two processors, calls the process “controlled atmosphere stunning,” but Mr. Pitman said his company was considering the phrase “sedation stunning” for use on its packages. Also on the short-list: “humanely slaughtered,” “humanely processed” or “humanely handled.”
The trick, he said, is to communicate the goal of the new system, which is to ensure that the birds “not have any extra pain or discomfort in the last few minutes of their lives.”
In a typical processing plant, birds are unloaded in what is known as the “live hang area.” Workers hang the chickens upside down from metal shackles connected to a mechanical rail that conveys them into the plant. They go first into a unit that uses a mild electric shock to make them unconscious, and then they are brought to the “kill machine,” where a blade cuts their throat and they bleed to death.
In the new system, birds will arrive at the processing plant in special containers that will go directly into a chamber to which carbon dioxide is slowly added, displacing some of the oxygen and making the birds unconscious. Only then will workers handle the birds and hang them on the shackles.
Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University and a prominent livestock expert, consulted with Bell & Evans as the company worked with Anglia to design its system. She said it was better because the chickens were not aware of what was happening to them. “Birds don’t like being hung upside down,” Dr. Grandin said. “They get really stressed out by that.”
Mr. Sechler said the system was designed to put birds to sleep gently, in the same way that a person undergoes anesthesia before surgery.
To evoke that image, he wants to put the words “slow induction anesthesia” on his packages and advertising, which already tell customers that the birds are raised in roomy conditions with natural light and given feed free of antibiotics or animal byproducts. Customers who want to know more will be able to go to the company’s Web site.
Mr. Sechler said the system he chose, after years of research, was better than similar gas-stunning systems used in Europe. Those systems, he says, often deprive birds of oxygen too quickly, which may cause them to suffer. They are also designed to kill the birds rather than simply knock them out, something that Mr. Sechler is not comfortable with.
“I don’t want the public to say we gas our chickens,” he said.
Mr. Sechler and others promoting the new system said that they expected the meat to be of higher quality because the birds faced less stress and also there would be less bruising and broken wings when they died.
The new system is also meant to be better for workers. The live hang area today is usually dimly lighted to keep birds from being startled, and workers have to contend with struggling, flapping chickens. “I never felt comfortable showing people that part of our operation,” Mr. Pitman said. “I was embarrassed by it.”
The animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has been pushing chicken processors for years to switch to gas stunning systems, in part because it does not believe that electrical stunning works.
But the National Chicken Council, which represents chicken processors, contends that electrical stunning systems are effective and humane. Richard Lobb, a spokesman for the council, said that being shackled upside down was not overly stressful for the birds. “They are shackled and they typically stay there quietly,” Mr. Lobb said.
Bell & Evans said it would begin selling chickens slaughtered using the new technology in April. The company, which processes about 840,000 birds a week, distributes its chickens nationwide.
Mary’s, which distributes in several Western states, expects to install the technology in June. The company processes about 200,000 birds a week.
By comparison, a single plant run by a large processor like Tyson Foods may handle more than 1 million birds a week.
The gas technology is expensive. Each company said it would cost about $3 million to convert their operations and more over time to run the systems. That makes it a hard sell in a commodity-oriented industry that relies on huge volumes and low costs to turn narrow margins into profits.
Mr. Sechler predicted that consumers would come to demand birds slaughtered in the new way, which would force the industry to gradually switch over.
But to demand it, consumers have to know about it, which gets back to the language on the label.
A Nebraska company, MBA Poultry, which sells under the Smart Chicken brand, has been using gas stunning technology since 2005. The company does not aggressively market the technology, but a label on the back of its packages contains the phrase “controlled atmosphere stunning.” The company’s Web site mentions the technology but does not explain what it is.
In Britain, although many chicken processors use gas stunning, store packages typically do not mention it.
“People don’t want to know too much,” said Marc Cooper, a senior scientific manager in the farm animals department of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, in London. “It’s hard to sell humane killing as a concept.”