Editor's Blog: Chicken industry opens its doors

by Kimberlie Clyma
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KANSAS CITY, Mo. – If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a firsthand experience is worth a million. I’m sure all the attendees of the recent Chicken Media Summit would agree. 

Kimberlie Clyma, managing editor, MEAT+POULTRY
Kimberlie Clyma dressed for access. (click for larger view)

The three-day event was hosted by the National Chicken Council and the US Poultry & Egg Association on Maryland’s Eastern Shore April 19-21. It brought together members of the poultry industry with meat and poultry trade and ag journalists, dieticians, retail nutritionists and bloggers. The group got a crash course in chicken production, from farm to fork, including a tour of a hatchery, a visit to a family owned chicken farm and a full-access tour of a chicken processing facility, as well as a visit to Perdue’s Innovation Center to learn about new product development. The chicken industry truly opened its doors to our visiting crew and personally I think that transparency speaks volumes.

Tom Super, vice president of communications for the National Chicken Council, explained that the plant tour was added to the Media Summit a couple of years ago. “I think it’s absolutely critical if you’re going to talk about transparency, you have to walk the walk. We didn’t leave any part of the production off limits and there was no question that went unanswered.”

After casual introductions over a cocktail reception and dinner Sunday night, the group of close to 60 piled into buses Monday morning for a daylong chicken production tour. We started at Perdue Hatchery #26 and were given an in-depth tour of the facility. We saw some of the 1.4 million eggs that are hatched in the facility each week, and also caught a glimpse of the chicks on their way out to farms in Maryland and Delaware.

Next stop was the family owned Cornerstone Farm in Hurloch, Md., owned by Terri Wolf-King and Jeff King. After suiting up once again in full-body biosecurity suits, we were given a tour of the farm’s chicken houses, which can hold approximately 21,500 chickens. Terri spoke candidly about her family’s business and why she does it. I heard from more than one of the other attendees that they felt better about how the animals were raised after seeing it firsthand and meeting the farmers.

The Amick Farms processing plant was the next stop of the tour. One million pounds of chicken are processed at the plant each week. While I’ve walked through a processing facility before, many of the other guests had not. Everyone was impressed with the sheer volume of product processed on an hourly, daily and weekly basis.

Our lunch break brought us to another family farm and farmer’s market — Wright’s Market, owned and operated by fourth generation farmer Charles Wright IV. Charles shared thoughts and stories about being a farmer today. In a nutshell he said, it wasn’t always easy, but he wouldn't have it any other way.

The final piece of the production puzzle was found at Perdue’s Innovation Center. A walk-through allowed the visitors to get an idea about how further processing and product development is done at companies like Perdue. We even sampled the new mac ‘n cheese chicken nugget and a local brewery inspired chicken sausage. The daylong tour really provided everyone with the complete picture what happens in the process of getting chicken on America’s dinner tables.

Each busload of participants included a wide variety of chicken experts including representatives from Perdue, Amick Farms, Mountaire, Claxton Poultry, Tyson Foods, GNP Company, Sanderson Farms, Simmons Foods, O.K. Foods, Foster Farms, Wayne Farms and Keystone Foods. There were veterinarians, food scientists, dieticians and industry spokespeople on hand to field any and all questions that were asked. “I think the broad representation from the industry at the event says a lot…that we want to move forward in this regard with a unified voice,” Super explained. “It wasn’t one company, one operation or even one trade association.”

After everything was digested, the group gathered the next morning to listen to panel discussions, led by industry experts, on chicken industry myths and facts and food safety.

As a trade journalist member of the meat and poultry industry I have the opportunity to interact with other members of the industry on a reasonably frequent basis. Our paths cross at conferences, expos and we frequently tour meat and poultry facilities as a part of our magazine’s monthly coverage. However, not everyone has that level of access. Realizing that is the case, the NCC and USPOULTRY made a point to include other food industry bloggers in the summit.

Why? “Because these are the people who are on the front lines communicating about food and agriculture and they should be given the opportunity to see how chicken is raised and processed,” Super said. “The best way to communicate on these issues isn’t really to communicate at all, but to show people for themselves. This is what we tried to do with the Media Summit – taking these folks to a hatchery, chicken farm and a processing plant to see chicken husbandry – farm to forklift – up close, with their own eyes… and noses! Hopefully between them, their readers, viewership, clients, customers and social media, we’ve begun to make a dent in the misunderstanding and misinterpretation about what our members do and why they do it.

“I think that we were able to include a broad range of folks that at least had one common dominator – food, or more specifically, chicken,” Super explained further. “Whether they cover that from a certain angle — whether it’s business, environmental, trade, nutrition, ag, or a mommy blogger, a dietician speaking to clients or a supermarket RD talking to customers — people have questions about chicken and we hope the media summit will arm them with information to at least have an honest dialogue.”

Was the tour a success? From my perspective — definitely. Not only did I get to take a look into another poultry plant, but I got to see parts of the process I had never seen before at the hatchery and chicken farm. Being able to see the process from farm to fork is extremely valuable as I continue to cover this industry.

“The response was overwhelmingly positive from the people who went on the tours, especially about the farmers and the employees in the hatchery and the processing plant,” Super said. “They learned that these are real people, and they care about what they do, they care about the animals and they care about producing safe food. That’s hard to convey in a video.”

In my opinion, however, an equally important part of this summit was being able to interact with the other invited guests. A private tour would have given me the same access, but not the interaction, which was priceless. Listening to everyone’s questions, watching the reactions, being a part of the ongoing discussions, this is what is often lacking from our industry-segregated events. Inviting people from outside the traditional meat and poultry industry is an invaluable way to get the word out beyond the walls of our industry. Other segments of the meat and poultry industry could learn from what the chicken industry was able to do at its Chicken Media Summit. Sometimes it’s scary to open the doors and let people in — but isn’t it better than having them commenting and criticizing from the outside without a true understanding of the process?

Super said he hopes the discussions won’t stop now that the media summit is over. Let’s hope this is just the beginning.

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