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Day 34 – Chicken. Factories.

April 6, 2010

Dateline: Phetchabun and Lopburi Provinces, Thailand – Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Mervyn visited a couple of chicken factories in the provinces north of Bangkok. We sat down with him to ask him a few questions about his experience. This is a transcript of that interview.

Interviewer: So, you toured a chicken factory. That seems like an odd thing to do while on holiday. What led to your visit?

Mervyn: Well, a friend of my dad’s is an executive at one of the largest chicken producers in Thailand. They distribute to most countries in Asia and to Europe. He asked if I wanted to visit a couple of his chicken factories while I was here. I’d never been to a chicken factory before, so I said, “Yes.”

Interviewer: But you’ve never severed a limb or spent three months in a Chinese gulag either. Those are “once in a lifetime” opportunities, but I don’t see you rushing off to buy a table saw or agitate for human rights in China.

Mervyn: An astute observation. Your two examples seem dangerous and scary, though, and I’m mostly a coward. Plus, they’d probably permanently alter my quality of life, whereas I didn’t see that happening visiting a chicken plant.

Interviewer: We’ll get to whether the visit to a chicken death camp altered your life. First, let’s talk about the trip to the factories. My understanding is that they’re not near Bangkok. How did you get there?

Mervyn: I met my uncle at his office. . .

Interviewer: Wait, you have an uncle?

Mervyn: Oh, yeah. Sorry. I call my dad’s friend “uncle. “ It’s an Asian thing.

Interviewer: Oh really? I didn’t know that.

Mervyn: Yeah. I call all of my parents’ friends “uncle” or “auntie.” It’s a sign of respect. In Asian cultures, it’s sort of a no no to call elders by their first name unless it’s preceded by some sort of honorific. When I was growing up, I thought that everyone did something like that. That is, until I met a White friend whose parent’s insisted I call them by their first name. That kinda freaked me out. I probably would have been more comfortable if they’d have introduced themselves to me naked.

Interviewer: If you say so. . . So you went to your “uncle’s” office.

Mervyn: Yeah. I met him there and he loaded up two vans with lesser chicken executives and we headed out to visit two factories. The first was about 2 hours away. The second was about an hour or so past that.

Interviewer: That’s a long day.

Mervyn: Tell me about it. It didn’t help that my uncle also insisted that two of the female execs sit in our van. He said, “I’m not trying to set you up,” then proceeded tell them that I was a lawyer from America who billed out at $450 an hour and was “the #1 on the bar exam.” I couldn’t even self-deprecate or correct him because I don’t speak Thai and they didn’t really speak English.

Interviewer: Sounds uncomfortable.

Mervyn: Nah. Just an awkward moment in a really long drive. All in good fun. I got to poke fun at him a little when we got to the first factory. We sat down for lunch and he introduced me to his team. They were all 35 or younger. Basically, my age. VPs, managers, and so forth. I pointed out that he was nearly double their age. I later found out that they also call him “uncle.”

Interviewer: So you had lunch at the factory. Did they serve chicken?

Mervyn: Of course they did! [laughing] They also served stuffed shrimp, curry, shrimp cakes, iced coffee, and spicy beef salad. They actually have their own restaurant on site. It’s part of what amounts to a resort that’s on the factory property. The compound is about 2,000 acres and they’ve set aside a portion of it for housing, recreation, décor (like fountains and trees) and food for visiting clients who stay to oversee production of their goods.

For example, a client might send someone over to fine tune a breading recipe for their frozen chicken breasts or to help adjust how the chickens are disassembled so that the size, shape, and color of the meat fit the client’s needs.

Interviewer: Huh. I never would have thought about having a resort at a chicken killing factory. Sounds surreal.

Mervyn: It sort of was.

Interviewer: So after lunch you toured the factory?

Mervyn: Yeah. The drill was pretty much the same for the whole day. My uncle and his team would head into a meeting with the factory people and I’d get passed around between strangers with varying degrees of enthusiasm, sort like I was a senile aunt bouncing between the homes of nieces and nephews. Most of the people who had me spoke English and gave me tours.

They were all young and all had been food science engineering majors in undergrad. Most had master’s degrees. One girl, whose English was very good, lived in California for a summer working at Magic Mountain on the Roaring Rapids ride. So random.

Interviewer: What were the tours like? What did you learn?

Mervyn: Well, it’s probably best if I combine some stuff. I toured two slaughterhouses and two processing plants, but they do similar types of things with some slight differences. You mind if I just describe the overall chicken process, then describe the differences between the sites?

Interviewer: No problem. Whatever you like. I’m on salary so if this is more efficient, all the better.

Mervyn: Cool. Okay, so the way I see it there are three general stages to processing chicken meat. First, there’s the breeding and growth stage. That’s where they take the “grandparent” chickens, manage evolution, and try to breed the best boiler chickens possible. Then, they take those grandparents, and make parent chickens. These parent chickens start laying eggs like crazy. The children of these parents are what end up in shipping containers to all parts of the world.

Interviewer: So did you visit a chicken farm?

Mervyn: No, unfortunately I didn’t. Apparently the place is locked down tighter than George W. Bush’s tell-all My Little Pony secret diary. A visit to the farm would have taken two days. Not to travel, mind you, but to be screened. I’d have to strip down naked, get sprayed down twice with special cleaning solvents, have my temperature taken (considering I’d have been naked, I didn’t ask where the put the thermometer), waited 36 hours in a secure environment while they ran tests on my blood and urine, have my temperature taken again, taken a lie detector test, been forced to drink 5 gallons of holy water, and then had watch a 3 hour loop of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song. Only then would I have been allowed to see the chickens.

Interviewer: That sounds extensive. . .

Mervyn: Well, I might have made some of that up. I do know for sure I’d have been in quarantine and had to get naked. As my uncle said, “The chicken farm is for chickens. Not for tourist or research or visit.” Since it sounded like a concentration camp, I didn’t put up much of a fight.

Interviewer: So after the chickens are full grown they come to the factory for the second stage of chicken processing.

Mervyn: Yeah. Next, the full grown birds get driven over in trucks to the slaughterhouse.

Interviewer: So did you get any juicy pictures of mass murder in action?

Mervyn: Unfortunately, I did not. The way the tour worked, my guide and I would look through a window down onto the factory floor. When we got to the killing floor of the slaughterhouse, I didn’t get a chance for a decent pic.

That’s because the killing room is dark and lit only by a pale blue light. The mood lighting is to calm the chickens. Unfortunately, that meant none of the pictures would have come out. The chickens weren’t actually killed in view of the window anyway. All I got to see was a distant view of chickens getting pulled out of plastic crates and being hung by their feet on a metal assembly line device.

Two things struck me about the process, though. First, the birds didn’t really move except when they flapped their wings just as they were hung upside down. Second, the birds were big and fat. I’m talking sumo big. When live boiler chickens have all their feathers and heads and feet, they look like white fluffy bowling balls that’d come up past your knees. I’m not exaggerating.

Interviewer: What are these, mutant chickens?

Mervyn: I asked about genetic modification, and they said that they don’t do that. Nor do they use hormones or antibiotics. They grow the chickens in gigantic open ranges that are housed in a sealed, temperature controlled building. The birds aren’t stacked in cages like I’ve seen in some pictures. The company even grows their own feed. Chickens raised for cooking are a lot larger when they’re alive than when they’re plucked and at the butcher shop.

Interviewer: So how are the chickens killed?

Mervyn: They’re killed by hand. All the factories are halal, so they have specially trained people who kill the birds according to Muslim requirements. First, the chickens are stunned with an electric shock, washed, then a trained man with a knife cuts its throat. I think the cutting is the halal part, not the electric shock.

From there the chickens are blanched in hot water and defeathered by a giant machine. I did get a picture of that machine. It winds back and forth. You can’t see the chickens only their feathers, so if you didn’t know better, you might think you were looking at a down feather comforter factory.

Interviewer: Really?

Mervyn: Until you noticed the blood.

Interviewer: Oh.

Mervyn: Overall, the process isn’t that bloody. Actually, the process is quite clean. The first area where the killing happens is designated “dirty.” The defeathering section is called “unclean” as is the part where they’re gutted and their feet and heads are removed. They have government inspectors in the gutting room. You can tell them by the yellow bands on their hats. All the dirty and unclean processes take about 15 minutes.

Everything else after the gutting room is considered a “clean” zone.

Interviewer: Why is that?

Mervyn: I think it’s because everything beyond that will be consumed by humans. They work really hard to make sure there’s no contamination.

After the birds are gutted, they’re cooled down to 4 degrees Celsius. Did you know, by the way, that the word “Celsius” is spelled with an “s” in the middle, not a “c”?

Interviewer: Actually, I did.

Mervyn: Oh. Ummm. . .I had to look it up.

Interviewer: It’s a common mistake. You Americans and your useless “Fahrenheit” and inches. It’s a wonder you get anything done.

Mervyn: Uhhh, okay.

Interviewer: Let’s move on. So, how are the birds chilled?

Mervyn: Right. They’re chilled one of two ways. At the first, older factory, they were washed three times in cold water. The chickens are dumped into a series of giant screw-like devices that have been turned on their side. The sideways screws are half submerged in cold water. The screws rotate and push the birds through three separate baths. Then they’re dumped onto a conveyor belt where they’re re-hung by what’s left of their necks.

Interviewer: You said there was a second way?

Mervyn: At the second, newer factory the birds were air cooled. The chickens travel through a room with near freezing air along a track that winds back and forth for 3.5 kilometers, the equivalent of nearly 2.25 miles.

Interviewer: [snickers] “Miles”. . .

Mervyn: The process takes two and a half hours, whereas the baths take only a few minutes.

Interviewer: That’s a lot of “miles” and time. Why use air cooling if the baths are faster?

Mervyn: At least two reasons. My guide tried to explain this to me, but his English was a little rough. First, there’s a lower chance of contamination. If one bird is contaminated in the bath, it can contaminate the other birds. In the air chilled process, one contaminated bird would only come in contact with two birds, at most.

Second, the air cooling process is a bit gentler on the meat because it takes longer. It’s a small difference, I think, but I guess it’s noticeable.

Interviewer: The chicken business is a lot more complicated than I would have thought.

Mervyn: That’s because you lack imagination.

Interviewer: Are you getting snippy with me because of the whole metric Celsius and mile thing?

Mervyn: Maybe. But you started it.

Anyway, after the birds are chilled, they’re butchered in earnest. They’re sliced at the wings. Then a worker slices each one across and up and down the body. This is the job that requires the most skill since these cross cutter workers have to handle 160 birds a minute.

Interviewer: That’s 320 cuts a minute!

Mervyn: You can do math.

Interviewer: Okay, so I apologize for the whole metric thing. Can we move on?

Mervyn: Fine.

The assembly line butchers the bird from the outside in, going from wings to legs to breasts to insides to the carcass. Each breast, leg, thigh, wing, or whatever is cut off the bird, then cut into smaller pieces by a line of knife-wielding workers.

Some meat is separated so it can be cut especially for customer specifications. All the cutting is done by hand.

I asked why they didn’t do the whole process with machines and a production manager said the cuts were better done by humans since humans pull at the meat and the machines would just slice.

From there, the meat is separated by weight. There’s a fascinating machine that uses plastic arms to snap up little pieces of meat that meet certain specifications.

Interviewer: So you’ve got stage one: breeding and growing chickens. Then you’ve got stage two: killing and butchering chickens.

After that you’ve presumably got the final stage: cooking and bagging chickens. So after the birds are sliced and diced, they’re parts are either bagged raw or moved on to the processing plant. At the processing plant they’re battered, breaded, fried, baked, or whatever the client desires. There was even a person working there, alone in a room, whose sole job seemed to be to make sure the meat was properly spaced before it entered the oven.

Clients can develop their own recipes and preparation processes and the chicken factory can execute them. In fact, the factory has an in-house lab and cooking facility where they test new flavors and see how different processes affect the consumers’ cooking time, cooking procedure, and so forth. They even have a kitchen that cooks the finished product in Asian appliances and a kitchen that cooks them in European appliances. There’s a lot. . .

Mervyn: Wait, what the hell’s going on here? Quit reading off my notes.

Interviewer: Sorry. You were taking too long. Remember, I’m paid on salary, not by the hour. The faster we get this shit done, the better. Grey’s is coming on and I want to watch it live.

Mervyn: What? Wait, did you just swear? Are you allowed to do that? Isn’t this going in a family publication? And isn’t Grey’s in reruns? Is it even on tonight? Wait, what am I talking about? I’m the interviewee. You ask questions, I give the answers. YOU interview ME, gosh darn it.

Interview: Rightrightright. You were saying.

Mervyn: Sheesh and gee whiz you’re difficult to deal with.

Where was I. . .Uhhh, so they try out the finished products in onsite test kitchen facilities that mimic European and Asian setups.

Interviewer: I said that.

Mervyn: Gravy and biscuits would you just do your job and quit with the commentary?

[points at picture]

If you look closely at one of the pics, you can see in little tiny writing that the cooked and bagged chicken is headed to Japan while others are headed to Korea. In the lower left, bags are being fed through a metal detector to make sure that…

Interviewer: . . .that there’s no metal in the chicken.

Mervyn: Right. [glares] Anyway, what I liked about the whole process is that everyone was dressed as a ninja. Red ninjas, brown ninjas, white ninjas, yellow, purple, green. All the colors signified rank and function. Supervisors, inspectors, floor managers, cutters, gutters, dismemberers. It was like being at an assassin academy, except instead of humans the ninjas murdered fowl.

Interviewer: That’s pretty cool. I like ninjas.

Mervyn: I know you do. I asked one of the guides what a typical work week was like. He said he got in at 7 a.m. and left around 7 p.m. He did that 6 days a week. That’s a 72 hour work week.

Interviewer: Makes you feel like a pampered bastard, doesn’t it? Your big firm life don’t look so arduous anymore does it?

Mervyn: Why can’t you just use the word “tough”? “Arduous”. . . Who you trying to impress.

Interviewer: Is that a statement or a question?

Mervyn: [sighs] Moving on. So the ninjas work hard. Real hard. They have to meet customer demands for color, size, shape, composition (for example, amount of skin, fat, and so forth), and production targets for a certain tonnage of chickens.

The place is a well oiled machine. There are a number of factories (I saw only two). Each can slaughter and process 200,000 to 800,000 birds a day depending on how many shifts the factory runs.

For the factories that use the automated layout with the air chill, a bird comes in live and is fully butchered in about 3 hours or so. For the more human intensive layout with cold water baths, the bird fulfills its destiny in 45 minutes. Add the breading, battering, frying, or oven time or whatever and they’re churning through birds like Lauren Conrad burns through hair extensions.

Interviewer: No kidding. That’s a lot of birds.

Mervyn: That’s what I said. Repeatedly. Throughout the day.

Interviewer: Some of your pics look like you needed to clean the lens. What’s up with your camera?

Mervyn: Nothing. There was condensation on the windows and I couldn’t take all of it off. The Thai workers were bemused with my determination to get a clear shot.

Interviewer: So I guess that brings us to the big question. Now that you’ve seen how the sausage is made (so to speak), can you still eat chicken?

Mervyn: In a heartbeat. In fact, right before this interview, I ate a whole bird, raw. My only hope is that factories and farms in the U.S. are as well run as the ones I saw.

Interviewer: You think that has anything to do with you not actually seeing the chickens being killed? I mean, if you got a little chicken blood on you, you might feel differently.

Mervyn: Perhaps, but I doubt it. In fact, I’ve always wanted to kill something and eat it. You know, sort of to see whether I could do it and how it feels.

Interviewer: You’re weird.

Mervyn: No, you are you pieface.

Interviewer: You know, when you attack me with names like that, you’re really just attacking yourself.

Mervyn: Is that some kind of Buddhist thing where me hating you is really just me loathing myself?  I’m not into that mysticism crap.

Interviewer: No, you jackass!  By attacking me, you really are just attacking YOURSELF.

Mervyn: Oh. . .yeah, that’s right.  Wait. . .but you just did the same thing right now…jackass!

Interviewer: This thing’s over.

Mervyn: Like I didn’t know that already.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Daryl permalink
    April 9, 2010 4:09 am

    I didn’t think reading about a chicken factory would be so interesting (@’_’@)

    • April 9, 2010 7:34 am

      I’ll take that as a compliment. 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it. Just messing with the format a bit to change the pace for the writer (me).

  2. Audrey permalink
    April 10, 2010 5:57 pm

    So I’m now a vegetarian….

    I love how you were #1 on the bar exam. Quite a feat!

    In all seriousness, nice post. I’m not sure what you plan to do with your blog after your travels are over (if they end), but you should do something. Good stuff here.

    • April 12, 2010 3:11 am

      We were all tied for #1 on the bar exam. Embrace the beauty of pass/fail.

      Appreciate the kind words. I too have my doubts about whether I’ll ever make it “home.” In all likelihood, I’ll just let my writings sit in the internet ether until WordPress ceases to exist (nothing lasts forever, even free blog companies).

      And, you missed the point of the post. Going to a chicken factory actually makes you want to eat fowl raw. RAW. You’ll experience this wondrous phenomenon next time you visit a chicken processing plant; I promise.

  3. Valerie permalink
    April 12, 2010 12:59 pm

    I was a bit wary of how you were going to describe the process since my vegetarian husband is always talking about the inhumane process of killing the animals…but you have just given me my first retort! Indebted to you once again!

    (btw, everytime I read your posts – starting to be every day now when I’m bored of work – I keep thinking I want to recommend your site to others. May I?)

    • April 12, 2010 8:49 pm

      Always happy when I can provide ammunition to oppressed omnivores.

      You, and anyone else, is more than welcome to share the site with others. My salary doubles for every additional 1,000 readers (2 x $0 = $0).

  4. Sally permalink
    April 22, 2010 3:47 pm

    How proud of you for this post? I’m proud of you.

    • April 23, 2010 2:45 am

      This entry is one I’m actually not embarassed of. Of course, it took 5 hours to write and edit plus a conversation with my editor on how to best end the piece.

      These facts allow me to pretend that my other posts would not suck if I just had more time. Delusions is the air my mind breaths to stay alive.

  5. Mr. Sam permalink
    April 19, 2011 9:26 am

    Hi there….

    I really excited o read your article. By the way, I’m really to know on how to contact this factory. May you help me on this matter?….



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