Evans fast earned a strong reputation in the poultry business.
Scott Sechler has served as owner of the company for the past 35 years, and takes pride in Bell & Evans being America’s oldest branded chicken company with an established reputation as the best in the market. During his time running the Fredericksburg, Pennsylvainia-based company, he’s introduced “all natural” chicken to the market and also championed the production method of air chilling vs. immersion chilling.
“I consider my biggest contributions to be developing the first all-natural chicken without antibiotics more than 20 years ago and developing the highest quality organic chicken available today,” Sechler says. “The secret to success has been building our business model by thinking like our consumer. I am our consumer. I produce food that I want to eat, and over the years, I’ve found that most consumers want the same thing.”
For Sechler, cost is never the deciding factor if quality is sacrificed.
“I won’t allow that in my business,” he says. “We want to feel good about what we eat, and the details matter. How the product looks and tastes, how it’s packaged, how the animals are raised and cared for, how employees are treated, how local resources are used, and how the company supports its community – it all matters. Doing the right thing is the right thing to do.”
Air chilling tech
Air-chilled chicken is cooled by passing the birds through several chambers where cold, purified air is circulated to cool the meat, resulting in no added moisture, stronger flavor and less chance for contamination.
Sechler is a big believer in air chilling and the system Bell & Evans utilizes is a single level of track that its birds travel along for almost three hours, through three cooling chambers, until they are chilled.
“Each chamber has controlled temperature and humidity,” he says. “Air chilling is a significant contributor to the tenderness and flavor of the meat as compared to the cheaper conventional water chilling system that submerges the birds in a cold-water bath that is heavily laden with chlorine to control the inherent bacteria.”
He believes the value of 100 percent air chill is that the customer purchases chicken without retained chlorinated water weight, that has been tenderized through a slow chilling process and has more flavor because its juices haven’t been diluted by a water bath.
“We are one of very few producers in America that produce a true 100 percent air-chilled product. Product quality is the value,” Sechler says. “Slowly air chilling chicken is like dry aging beef except that the time window is much shorter to safely cool chicken. Water chilling takes about a third of the time as air chilling, a third of the amount of facility space and costs a quarter of what 100 percent air chilling costs, but you lose product quality.”
In October 2018, the company installed a chilling tunnel for livers, hearts, necks and gizzards that utilizes the same refrigeration technology as its air chill system, becoming the only US retailer to sell 100 percent air chilled liver, hearts and gizzards.
“When we open our new harvesting plant in 2021, we will actually build a conveyor line within our air chill system to chill our giblets with the chickens like they do in Europe,” Sechler says. “Even our paws are air chilled using a CO2 system whereas most producers use water chill for those as well.”
Advantages over traditional
Water chilling, Sechler explains, is like chilling your food in a community swimming pool, compared to chilling your food in a refrigerator like air chill. Tens of thousands of chickens are dumped into a large water trough where they are cooled and discharged from the opposite end, leaving blood, feathers and more behind in the water. Water chilling dilutes the natural juices of the bird, and they pick up water from the process, which is why most chicken comes with a pad in the bottom of the package to absorb that leakage.
“When I was a boy and we processed 50 birds at a time, we chilled them in fresh spring water and then spread that water on our cropland, that was a much different scale and system than today,” he says. “Today, we save millions of gallons of water each year from going into our wastewater treatment plant and into the waterways by using air chill instead of water chill.”
The air-chilling system has a capacity of 200,000 chickens in a cycle and its audience is anyone who appreciates better tasting food.
Air chill isn’t new to the industry and Bell & Evans has been using it since 2005.
“The food industry generally only changes by force or demand from consumers, generally by losing business to higher quality producers,” Sechler says. “Poultry producers are very smart people and there’s not a shortcut or cost saving solution they can’t figure out, so some have started to incorporate a hybrid version of air chill that still includes some water chilling.”
The reason why is obvious, he notes – air chill nets a better product.
“If the goal is to produce the best chicken possible, you should use it,” he says. “We don’t think like the rest of the industry though. We price our chickens accordingly so we can produce them the best way that we can, and there has been no shortage of demand for our premium chicken products.”