Slaughtering Chickens Essay

How to butcher chickens: a documentary in photographs

Warning: this is a graphic ‘how to’ photo essay on chicken dispatching and butchering, do not read any further unless you are really interested in learning the art of home butchery. Note these directions will work for turkey, chicken and ducks (and their wild cousins). See butchering turkey post for specifics on turkeys.

I was all set to butcher my Cornish Crosses this morning but they are still too skinny! So, instead I decided to butcher some of my larger roosters from last year. Although they are getting along fine with each other, I really do have too many of them. I am going to give one of my favourites away to the friend who lost all her chickens to the marauding bears in January. She has finally gotten herself another flock of gals who are in need of a beau. So, its the Pavarotti understudy who is the model for the accompanying photos. He was big and gorgeous but not new blood, so he has to go.

1. Step One: Preparing the work area.

Clean your work station so it is ready for the job.

Clean workstation ready for the task.

Mine is about as simple an operation as anyone would want. Here is the list of equipment I work with:

a) An easy to clean table for the gutting and cleaning process (mine is a piece of smooth arbourite that sits on top of my table).

b) Block of wood for knocking the bird unconscious and killing cones to place the bird in to bleed out.

c) Knives sharp enough to do the job easily. I keep an assortment of sizes for different aspects of the job.

d) Plucking machine (not necessary, but helpful on the hands!)

e) Scalder and heat source: in my case is an old beer keg with an end cut off so I can fill it with water which sits on a metal stand so I can get a flame underneath it for heating the water. This is my newly acquired elaborate piece of equipment that is actually borrowed from someone who no longer uses it. Alternatively, place a metal container over an open fire will also work (see Poultry in Motion or Butchering Turkeys for examples).

f) Clean plastic or metal containers for rinsing the ‘keepables’ (heart, liver, gizzard, and neck) and cooling the birds after processing.

g) Various buckets for hand washing, collecting the guts and blood, towels for drying hands, cloths for wiping up, dish soap, running water.

2. Step Two: render the bird unconscious

Grab the bird by the feet then swing the bird over your head and swifty, and with force, bring its head down onto a hard surface so as to knock him unconscious. This is the first time I’m doing it this way since speaking with another farmer about how he kills his birds. He convinced me that it was worth trying. The idea is that you render it unconscious before slitting its jugular and therefore it is a more humane way of killing the bird than simply slitting it while fully conscious. Until today, I have always just slit them once in the killing cones. I must say, this method is preferable and there is a definite ease in dealing with them in the killing cones. When they are not unconscious, they can kick and fuss and even jump their way out of the cones after they are cut. This does not happen when the bird is unconscious. It made for a much more relaxed dispatch process in general.

Rendering the bird unconscious by hitting his head on the wooden board.

A life defining moment:

I once saw Australian Aboriginal women do this with monitor lizards in the Outback. She drug it from its hole (after tracking it) by the tail and swung it overhead–exactly as I’m doing in the above photo–and brought its head down over a rock. It was shocking at first to see and yet my immediate thought was, ‘That is the kind of woman you need around if you’re ever in a pinch!” I was so impressed with those ladies that I thought, “I have to become one of those kind of women”. It’s taken a few years–not to mention a few tears–but I’m nearly there!

3. Step Three: killing the bird

Place the bird in the killing cone. Then, bring its head through the hole at the bottom. Have your knife ready (it will need to be very shard for chickens, especially roosters because they are heavily feathered in the neck region where you will need to cut). To locate the jugular vein, look at the chicken’s cheek. You will see it’s ear tuft of hair and jowl. The jugular is located at the edge of the cheek/jawline in line with its ear. Imagine the corner of your jaw and then look at the chickens jaw for the same point. Cut there. You will know that you have cut correctly when the blood spurts out of the neck. If it is slowly dribbling, you have not yet found the jugular–keep cutting. Repeat on both sides.

Grab the head and locate the jugular area before beginning your cut.

4.  Step four: Scalding

Put the bird in the scalder for several seconds and swish it in an up and down motion to allow the water to penetrate through the layers of feathers. The scalder water temperature should be at least 145 degrees F. Opinion varies widely on how hot the water should be. I make sure it is above 145F and no hotter than 170F. If it fluctuates between those temperatures, I don’t tend to worry about it. Simply take the heat source away from the water if it gets too hot. If you cover the scalder with a lid between birds the water will hold its temperature surprisingly well.

Chicken after several seconds of dunking in water scalder.

5. Step Five: Plucking the feathers.

Place the bird on the plucking machine. Gently roll it over from side to side so that all the body parts are eventually exposed to the plucker. Alternatively, place it on the table and start plucking by hand! Not all the feathers will come easily, some will have to be hand plucked even with the plucking machine.

The plucking machine saves my hands from a lot of tedious work!

Finishing touches of feather removal must be done by hand.

6. Step Six: Remove lower legs.

Once you have the feathers off it is time to start the butchering process. Grab hold of the lower leg and bend it backward slightly. Take the knife and begin your cut at the joint. Cut through the cartilage and avoid cutting the bone. This makes the leg removal cleaner and easier.

Removing the lower leg.

7. Step Seven: Cut off the head.

Place your hand on the head, tilt the head back and sever between the head and neck. Once you have the meat cut all the way around the base of the head, you should be able to pull the head off. This is better than cutting through the bones in the neck as it leaved the chicken certainly clean of bone shards. Then, cut into the neck skin just below the top of the breast bone. Be careful not to cut into the flesh inside or the crop which is located in this throaty area.

8. Step Eight: Remove the crop.

Cut the skin all the way around the neck so it will be removable. You don’t have to cut as high up towards the breast as I have in order to get at the crop. If you want to retain more of the skin around the breast, then cut up from the neck towards the breast  (instead of from the breast down as I have in the photo) just enough to get your hand into the chest cavity. Pull the crop away from the chest cavity and locate its outlet that goes deep into the body. Then locate the esophagus which lays alongside the crop outlet. Cut both these tubes and remove them from their location. Gently pull the crop and the tubes out of the body and pull the neck skin along with it to remove it from the chicken entirely.

Carefully cutting into chest cavity.

Locate the crop being careful not to cut it open.

Carefully cut the crop away from the body cavity.

Note: I’ve taken too much of the skin around the breast away to make the perfect roasting bird. Luckily, this fellow is going to be made into Chicken Byriani by my friend from Hyderabad, India on Friday night so it is not a problem.

Pull the crop along with the neck skin down over the neck and off the bird.

9. Step Nine: Gut removal

Cut into the stomach cavity below the breast bone and down towards the anus, being careful not to cut into the meat or the guts inside.  Cut down and around the anus. Gently pull the anus and colon away from the bird. Then place your hand inside the bird and pull the organs away from the cavity wall. Turn your hand from side to side to help dislodge the connective tissue. Grab hold of all that you can, including the lungs which are at the back of the bird, and pull it all out of the hole you’ve made. You can either toss all the guts away at this point (a bit of a waste of good nutritional value in the form of lost giblets), or clean the heart, liver and gizzard for use in the gravy and stuffing.

Carefully cut into stomach cavity of bird at base of breast bone.

Cut towards the anus being careful not to cut through colon.

Here is the colon on the inside of the bird still attached to the now removed anus.

Gently pull the anus and colon out and away from the body of the bird.

Place your hand inside stomach cavity and dislodge all the innards from the chest wall.

10. Step Ten: Prepare the giblets.

Cut the heart in half and wash in clean water. Cut the gal bladder from the liver and wash the liver. Cut open the gizzard and remove its contents then clean and wash it. Place the above in cool water.

The innards of the chicken: heart, lungs, liver, kidneys, gizzard, and intestines.

Cut open the gizzard being careful not to cut through the inner sac.

Pull the inner sac away from the gizzard.

The giblets cleaned and ready for packaging: neck, heart, liver, and gizzard.

11. Step Eleven: Remove oil sac:

At the base of the back just above the tail feathers is the oil sac. Place your knife above the sac and cut fairly deep into the skin. You want to go in and behind the two sacs and come out above the tail feathers but below the sac. In the photo below, you can see clearly a nub where a feather used to be. This is the base of the oil sac and where you want your cut to come out below.

Remove the oil sac at the base of the back above the tail.

12. Step Twelve: Prepare for storage

I always wrap the giblets in celophane and place them along with the neck into the body cavity as you would a turkey. This way the are available for use in gravies, curries, or stuffing. They add nutritional value to our lives that we are no longer getting in the form of organ meats thanks to our contemporary lifestyle of store-bought meat. Then I place the birds in zip-lock freezer bags and freeze if I’m not planning on using them right away.

The giblets are wraped in celophane and placed inside the bird along with the neck.

The chicken weighs in at precisely 5 pounds.

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Tagged as Butchering chickens, butchering chickens humanely, butchering chickens kosher style, Butchering ducks, Chickens, ethical butchering chickens, how to butcher chickens, Human dispatch, killing chickens humanely, kosher butchering

Preslaughter handling

When the birds have reached “harvest” time, they are generally taken off of feed and water. This allows their digestive tracts to empty and reduces the potential for contamination during processing.

At night the birds are caught by specially trained crews and placed into plastic or wooden transport cages. The birds are then transported to the slaughterhouse, where the trucks are often kept between sets of fans to ventilate the cages.

In the next step the birds are removed from the cages and transferred to continuously moving shackles where they are suspended by both legs. The transfer is often done in a dark room illuminated by a red light; the birds are not sensitive to the red light and this helps to keep them calm.

The handling and transfer of birds both on the farm and at the slaughterhouse can be stressful. Stress can have negative effects on the quality of the final meat product, and therefore efforts are constantly being made to improve the preslaughter processes.

Slaughtering

Stunning and killing

After the birds have been transferred to the moving shackles, they are usually stunned by running their heads through a water bath that conducts an electric current. Stunning produces unconsciousness, but it does not kill the birds. The birds are killed either by hand or by a mechanical rotary knife that cuts the jugular veins and the carotid arteries at the neck. Any birds not killed by the machine are quickly killed by a person with a knife assigned to the bleed area. The birds are permitted to bleed for a fixed amount of time, depending on size and species (e.g., 1 1/2 minutes for broilers). Any bird that is not properly bled will be noticeably redder after feather removal and will be condemned.

Scalding

Following bleeding, the birds go through scalding tanks. These tanks contain hot water that softens the skin so that the feathers can be removed. The temperature of the water is carefully controlled. If retention of the yellow skin colour is desired, a soft-scald is used (about 50 °C, or 122 °F). If a white bird is desired, a higher scald temperature is used, resulting in the removal of the yellow pellicle. Turkeys and spent hens (egg-laying birds that have finished their laying cycles) are generally run at higher temperatures—59 to 60 °C (138 to 140 °F).

Defeathering

The carcasses then go through the feather-picking machines, which are equipped with rubber “fingers” specifically designed to beat off the feathers. The carcasses are moved through a sequence of machines, each optimized for removing different sets of feathers. At this point the carcasses are usually singed by passing through a flame that burns off any remaining feathers.

An extra process, called wax dipping, is often used for waterfowl, since their feathers are more difficult to remove. Following the mechanical feather picking, the carcasses are dipped in a melted, dark-coloured wax. The wax is allowed to harden and then is peeled away, pulling out the feathers at the same time. The wax is reheated and the feathers are filtered out so that the wax can be reused. This process is usually performed twice.

The blood and feathers accumulated during these early steps are generally collected and rendered to make blood meal and feather meal. The feathers from ducks and geese are often carefully collected and used for down production.

Removal of heads and legs

The heads of the birds go into a channel where they are pulled off mechanically; the legs of the birds are removed with a rotary knife (much like a meat slicer) either at the hock or slightly below it, depending on national custom. The carcasses drop off the shackle and are rehung by their hock onto the eviscerating shackle line. By law in the United States, the scalding and defeathering steps must be separated by a wall from the evisceration steps in order to minimize cross-contamination.

Evisceration and inspection

At this point the preen, or oil, gland is removed from the tail and the vent is opened so that the viscera (internal organs) can be removed. Evisceration can be done either by hand (with knives) or by using complex, fully automated mechanical devices. Automated evisceration lines can operate at a rate of about 70 birds per minute. The equipment is cleaned (with relatively high levels of chlorine) after each bird.

The carcasses are generally inspected during the evisceration process. The inspection procedures in the poultry industry vary around the world and may be performed by government inspectors, veterinarians, or plant personnel, depending on a country’s laws. For example, in the United States the viscera are removed and placed on the side of the bird. Inspectors from the U.S. Department of Agriculture then examine the entire bird. The plant provides each inspector with an assistant who carries out any adjustments required by the inspector (e.g., removing the entire bird or removing some part of the bird). The rejected parts are placed in a container marked “inedibles,” and the contents are generally dyed (often a blue-purple), under supervision of the inspector, in order to prevent possible mixing with edible parts.

Following inspection, the carcasses are further cleaned. The viscera are separated from the carcasses, and the edible offal are removed from the inedible offal. The heart, stomach, and liver are all considered edible offal and are independently processed. Stomachs are generally cut open and the inside yellow lining of the stomach along with the stomach contents are removed.

The lungs and kidneys are removed separately from the other visceral organs using a vacuum pipe. A final inspection is often carried out at this point, and the carcasses are then washed thoroughly.

Chilling

After the carcasses have been washed, they are chilled to a temperature below 4 °C (40 °F). The two main methods for chilling poultry are water chilling and air chilling.

Water chilling

Water chilling is used throughout North America and involves a prechilling step in which a countercurrent flow of cold water is used to lower the temperature of the carcasses. The carcasses are then moved into a chiller—a large tank specifically designed to move the carcasses through in a specific amount of time. Two tanks are used to minimize cross-contamination.

A specified overflow of water for each tank is required by law in the United States and Canada. Although this renders the chilling process very water-intensive, it helps to minimize bacterial cross-contamination by diluting the microorganisms washed off the carcasses, thereby preventing recontamination.

Water chilling leads to an increase in poultry weight, and the amount of water gained is carefully regulated. In the United States the legal limits for water pickup are 8 percent for birds going directly to market and 12 percent for birds that will be further processed (the assumption is that they will lose the extra 4 percent by the time they reach the consumer).

Air chilling

Air chilling is the standard in Europe. The carcasses are hung by shackles and moved through coolers with rapidly moving air. The process is less energy-efficient than water chilling, and the birds lose weight because of dehydration. Air chilling prevents cross-contamination between birds. However, if a single bird contains a high number of pathogens, this pathogen count will remain on the bird. Thus, water chilling may actually result in a lower overall bacterial load, because many of the pathogens are discarded in the water.

The final temperature of the carcasses before shipment is usually about −2 to −1 °C (28 to 30 °F), just above the freezing point for poultry. In some cases a slight crusting on the surface occurs during the final chilling. For water-chilled carcasses this final chilling takes place after packaging, when the carcasses are placed in an air chiller.

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