It used to be that if the preacher was coming for dinner, a chicken met its maker before lunch. Cooking up a fresh bird was the on-farm version of fast food long before Col. Saunders hit the scene with his Kentucky Fried franchise. A hen could contribute to the family's breakfast and still be dressed and on the table for the main meal.
Having its neck wrung or head chopped off was obviously a no-win situation for the bird, but at least its suffering was limited to a matter of seconds from the time it was scooped out of the chicken coop.
And it is arguably more humane than modern processing methods that entail catching and loading the birds into cages and transporting them to a slaughterhouse where they endure a panicked few moments hung in shackles by the feet with their wings flapping frantically until they are dipped into water, stunned with electrical current, bled out and eviscerated.
The shackles are both painful and frightening, says Wim Van Stuyvenberg, a slaughterhouse systems designer with TopKip B.V. in Liendon, Netherlands. "I really feel sorry for the birds," he said.
But in an era in which most consumers no longer have the interest or the ability to produce and process their own food, meat processing is all about volume, speed and efficiency. Measures are taken to keep birds' suffering to a minimum, but animal welfare groups are constantly pressuring industry and regulators to do more.
Nowhere has that pressure been more intense than Europe, and in particular, the Netherlands. There, standards for treatment of animals in the livestock industry are routinely more onerous than required by European Union regulations, which are already the toughest in the world. But from that intensity has come innovation.
As of Jan. 1, 2013, new EU regulations upped the electrical current poultry processors are required to use in the water-bath stunning systems in order to make extra sure all birds are unconscious before entering the processing line.
Van Stuyvenberg said while well-intentioned, it has actually proven disastrous, exacerbating two problems with existing poultry slaughter designs.
In commonly used water-bath stunning systems, the electrical current travels from head to toe, jolting the entire bird. In an increased number of instances, the higher current essentially "blows up the bird," as the electricity causes blood vessels to burst, reducing meat quality, he said.
Van Stuyvenberg said the second problem with existing systems is that they apply the same force to every bird, which in many cases leads to overkill.
He has come up with a system that rectifies both issues and provides more comfort for the birds as well.
Rather than restraining the birds with shackles before stunning, the TopKip system cradles the birds in a cone, which is more soothing.
A computerized paddle on each side of the bird's head measures the resistance (measured in ohms) and delivers precisely as much punch as needed to render the bird unconscious. The electrical current only travels through the head, leaving carcass quality intact.
An added bonus is the poultry line system records the electrical dose delivered to each bird at a line rate of 13,500 birds per hour, data that can be stored and reviewed for quality control. The system can also be modified to meet requirements for halal and kosher meats.
The recently renovated Mountain View Poultry in Okotoks, Alta., is the first in Canada to install the new stunning system at a cost of $150,000, 15 times more than the cost of a conventional system.
"The biggest thing is, I really feel it is more humane," said owner Jonathan Kielstra, who said the cones are less stressful for the birds than being hung by their feet. He also expects to see an improvement in carcass quality.
The family-owned firm that processes 30,000 birds per week for specialty markets in Alberta hopes to turn its upgraded processing methods into a marketing advantage.
Consumers may be far removed from the production chain, but they still care about process. "I think we'll be able to advertise it," he said.
Laura Rance is editor of the Manitoba Co-operator. She can be reached at 204-792-4382 or by email: email@example.com