Kosher Chickens: From Coop to Soup

Published Spring 2007 

There is a strange but true phenomenon that has resulted in our society’s technologically
motivated, highly competitive marketplace. If a manufacturer or producer desires to remain viable and competitive, he never loses sight of the fact that successful business demands innovation, creativity and growth. Status quo in the manufacturer’s lexicon often means stagnation, and no company wants to stagnate. In turn, the manufacturer on the move continues to innovate in an environment that encourages survival of the fittest. This presents additional challenges for products requiring kosher supervision from a kashrus agency. These axioms are very keenly felt in the production of kosher poultry, where halachic ingenuity and technological advances converge. The average kosher consumer rarely, if ever, has the opportunity to see a large or small slaughterhouse in action. Therefore, Kashrus Kurrents offers its readers an inside look at the policies and procedures of kosher shechita, ritual slaughter, in a modern kosher poultry production facility.

Kashrus considerations are taken into account, literally from coop to soup. A scientifically researched highly nutritional diet, high in protein and low in carbohydrates, has been proven to produce quality kosher chickens. This regimen provides healthier skin to the young chickens and more easily facilitates cold feather removal, a must in a kosher processing plant. The Rav Hamachshir visits the hatchery to make sure that proper protocol for diet and inoculation are being followed. Modern techniques for kosher chicken breeding address the problem of
halachic inoculation against disease. To avoid the possibility of puncturing an organ or cranium membrane, the chicks are carefully vaccinated in the skin at the back of the neck. The chickens are raised until they are seven to eight weeks old, too young to lay eggs, yet suitable for processing. As a rule, chicken breeding is an equal opportunity enterprise, with no discrimination made between male and female chickens.

Today, chickens are shipped to the processing plant in newly designed shipping units instead of conventional crates. Each truck holds between 8,000 to 12,000 chickens that are shipped in metallic cages, with 600 birds per unit. These are open trailers that are subject to the elements. Temperature extremes are not healthy for cooped up chickens. Heat and steam are worse for their well being, some chickens even die in transport. It goes without saying that the shochtim, trained ritual slaughterers, make sure that only live chickens are shechted slaughtered).

Another very important precaution mashgichim take is making sure the chicken units are not dropped off the truck at the unloading dock. This prevents nefulos, dropped chickens, that are disqualified from shechita. For that reason, these specially formulated units are moved with a forklift and the birds are loaded onto a conveyor belt leading into the processing plant. Once
the chickens are placed onto the conveyor, they are pushed through a door leading to the shechita room. At one well known company, the chickens remain in their metallic cages until the drop, where the cage is gradually lowered onto the moving belt. The cages are tilted on the moving belt until they open and are emptied of the chickens, which are subsequently shechted.

Measures are taken to compensate for the increased volume of production by adding shochtim to the shechita line. For a quality shechita to be successful, it is imperative to have a staff of shochtim and mashgichim who are true yirei shomayim (G-d fearing) and experts in their field. The job of a shochet requires mastery of the craft, with attention to detail and a sharp mind. It also requires ensuring that the “maase shechita” is executed “k’dos uchedin”, according to the letter of the law. The shochet should also exhibit care and concern that everything goes smoothly and efficiently. There are various recommended methods of holding the chickens when they are slaughtered. Reputable kosher shechitos frown upon a moving line during the shechita. This tends to impede the shochet’s ability to shecht properly. Therefore, reliable supervisory agencies will not permit it.

Large poultry processors have multiple shochtim on line at one time, with one roving Rav Bodek Sakinim, a rabbi to check the chalofim (knives). A pegima, nick in the knife, will disqualify the shechita. Therefore, each knife must be constantly checked by the Rav Bodek Sakinim, in addition to the shochet himself, who must check his chalaf every few minutes. The shochet has to make sure he is shechting a healthy, live chicken with the proper simanim (signs) – a trachea (wind pipe) and esophagus (food pipe) that are to be cut correctly. In order to maintain a quality production, shochtim work in shifts of one hour on and one hour off, to keep their reflexes and judgment at optimum levels.

After the shechita, the shochet places the chickens into cones until the blood is drained and the chickens are ready to be processed. Processing kosher chickens is a modern food science. In some plants, chickens are first soaked in ice water to toughen the skin and give the chicken longer shelf life. Hot water is never used for processing before salting, as it would render the chickens treif. The chickens pass through a modernized plucking machine, where the feathers are peeled off. After plucking, the head and feet are automatically removed. In the U.S., due to a great risk of infection, the feet of the chicken are not used.

At this point, the chickens are inspected by mashgichim at different checkpoints while the chicken’s organs are being eviscerated. The mashgichim inspect for broken bones, holes, punctures and bruises. They make sure that all the required organs of the chicken are present, there are no chicken pox on the intestines, and there are no breaks or swelling that would render the chicken treif. Any chickens deemed questionable are taken off the line and placed on hooks over to the side. The Rav on-site paskens, rules, as to whether these chickens are kosher or treif. Any treif chicken is marked with a black wing clip, while the kosher chickens are sent down the processing line to be kashered, soaked and salted. It is interesting to note, what the USDA may pass as a healthy chicken, kashrus may reject.

One of the most innovative methods employed by industrial kashrus is the poultry plants. The halachic procedure of soaking and salting chicken and meat is very straightforward: 1/2 hour soak, 1 hour salt, 3 times rinse. What is not so simple is how a plant logistically and expeditiously kashers up to 120,000 chickens per day. The answer is a specially designed moving soak tank, where 3,000 chickens are continuously delivered by conveyer from beginning to end. At the end of the soak cycle, the by automated salt machines, and conveyed around the plant for one hour. After the required three hadochos, rinses, the chickens are cooled in giant chillers to 34oF. At this point, the chickens may be singed and sealed with plumbes, kosher wing clips, and are ready for packing.

What does the company do with the chickens that have been rendered nonkosher due to questionable status or improper shechita? The non-kosher chickens are collected in gray totes and are placed off to the side. They are physically placed into a large cardboard crate called a combo, which holds up to 1,000 lbs. of product. When the combo is full, it is staged in the designated non-kosher area of the plant. The rabbi issues each combo a specific number, as well as tags, and enters the number onto a logsheet. The workers sign the shipping logs at the end of the day when the combo leaves the plant. This is to make sure that the non-kosher product will not inadvertently be mixed with kosher chickens.

How are the kosher chickens shipped? Kosher chickens are packaged in various forms, sizes and amounts – retail, wholesale, family packs, cut-ups (pieces) and cutlets. At the packaging point, a mashgiach checks for cut-ups and makes sure that all chickens are packed properly and bear kosher plumbes on every piece. The boxes are triple taped for shipping. Of course, once the chickens reach the butcher shop, the opened chickens are under the watch of each store’s Rav Hamachshir. However, if an order comes directly from the plant and is improperly sealed, or if any irregularity is found in the shipment, it should be returned for a full refund.

One well known company is no longer selling chicken by the case. Instead, it will carry a factory-sealed line where products will be bagged in branded retail-portion bags to be sealed on-site. A security hologram will also be added to assist in keeping track of their products. Consequently, a butcher that elects to remove the factory seals cannot re-label the package with the company’s name.

Education Breaks, Tears & Irregularities

Even with the best intentions and the most intensive hashgacha, problems can arise on occasion. Halachic shailos, questions, are addressed on a case by case basis. Nevertheless, general guidelines of what constitutes a shaila can be provided to the homemaker. A broken chicken bone with no discoloration, or slight discoloration and a jagged or fully broken bone, presents no kashrus problems; we would assume the bone was broken in processing. However, a broken bone that has begun to re-knit itself does present a problem. If there is a spot of coagulated blood without a break, the blood has to be washed away. If the break is surrounded by an area of coagulated blood, the chicken should be shown to a Rav.

Skin tears can occur in the plucking machine. If the bone is not broken but is dislocated from its socket, e.g., the drumstick or the wing from the chicken’s body, a Rav should be consulted. Similarly, a Rav should be consulted if there is swelling at the bottom of the drumstick, especially if there is swelling with red or green discoloration. It may not be evident, but there is a marked difference between a whole chicken and a whole cut-up chicken processed in the plant. If there is a problem with a wing of a whole chicken, the complete chicken is treif. With a cut-up chicken, only that piece should be thrown away because the cut-up tray is comprised of different pieces. In a local butcher shop, the housewife should check whether the cut-up comes from the same chicken or from various pieces that make up the tray.

The same is true with liver and giblets that are sold with the chicken. Those parts are packaged separately in the plant and are not the liver or giblets of that particular chicken. It is imperative to remove the liver pack before roasting the chicken. A chicken that is roasted with the liver in the cavity must be brought to the Rav for a decision regarding the chicken and roaster; the liver is probably treif and must be discarded. In certain processing plants, the necks are kashered with the whole chicken. In that case, the jugular veins should be slit three times or removed, and the mokom hashechita (the slaughtering site) washed off. At other facilities, where the necks are cut off, a machine clips off the mokom hashechita and the necks are kashered separately; splitting of the neck is not necessary.

The Bottom Line

From time immemorial, the hallmarks and true guidelines that have been followed by kosher consumers have been integrity, reliability and trust. All too often, the conscientious homemaker gets caught up with hearsay and fancy advertising – “super glatt” and “Mehadrin glatt” – without bothering to separate fact from fiction. It is imperative to buy chicken that is endorsed by a respected rabbinic authority, or kashrus organization with hashgacha temidis and regulations, to ensure the product is 100% reliably kosher. It is certainly advisable to purchase meat and poultry from a butcher with genuine integrity and commitment to Torah and mitzvos, along with reliable supervision. At last, the dedicated and scrupulous balebusta (housewife) can finally buy kosher quality poultry with confidence.