Is air-chilled chicken “better” than chicken going through water immersion? That’s a question that’s been asked over the past 10 years, after a small poultry processor in Nebraska began cooling his birds after they were eviscerated using air instead of a water chiller. One decade later, the question still hasn’t been answered.

There’s no doubt air-chilled chicken is finding its way onto more dinner tables at home, even though in small numbers, thanks to its purchase by grocery stores for sale to their customers. Last fall, Wegmans Food Markets, Rochester, N.Y., added air-chilled chickens to its Food You Feel Good About organic chicken line. The chain had introduced organic chicken under its own label three years ago, but in the fall enlisted a supplier to air chill its birds. Fare Game Food Company has been selling air-chilled chicken from a Canadian supplier for several years. One of the advantages Fare Game cites for air-chilled poultry is lack of water in the poultry.

The 99 percent of American poultry processors who’ve stuck to cooling birds by immersion in chlorinated water-chiller baths say their method is fine. Air chilling chicken has been a common practice in Europe and Canada for the past 45 years or so, but is only about a decade old in this country. Air-chilling or water-chilling chicken refers to the method used to cool the birds down after they are slaughtered and eviscerated. Water-chilled birds are dipped into ice cold water containing chlorine. Airchilled chickens are cooled down by being moved through a cold air process.

The cool-down, by some means, is a U.S. Dept. of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service requirement. “The birds come out of evisceration at a temperature of about 100°F,” explains Kevin Siebert, president and CEO of MBA Poultry in Waverly, Neb., the first poultry-processing company in the U.S. to begin using the air-chilling process 10 years ago. “The USDA rule requires the birds to be cooled to 40°F or below within four to six hours.

“Instead of being put into the ice water together, the birds are individually shackled and moved through refrigerated chambers. In a timed air-chilled system, the birds don’t touch water, they are completely dry,” Siebert says.

This is in contrast to some air-chilling systems combining water and air, where the birds are sprayed with water first and then encrusted in a thin layer of ice chilled by air. While there is no current labeling standard for air-chilled chicken, such a standard is being considered by FSIS because of an increase in the number of processing plants using air chilling technology in the market. But no steps toward a standard have been taken so far.

Siebert, who brands his company’s product as “Smart Chicken,” says, “Our research showed air-chilling our birds after evisceration produces a better product, as opposed to ‘commodity’ chicken. Our company was formed with the idea and the concept of producing a differentiated specialty chicken product. We were looking to make a higher-quality product, and we’ve achieved that goal.” MBA uses phrases such as “Taste the Air-Chilled Difference” and “Smart Chicken pioneered a unique chilling method allowing chickens to be cooled individually with purified, cold air” in its marketing. One attribute to using air-chilling, he says, is there is no absorption of water by the birds in the chilling process.

Siebert points out not all companies claiming to use air-chilling use the process for all of their birds. “Some companies use modified airchilling, which utilizes both immersion or spray and cold air. Other use evaporative air-chilling, using a brief cold-air blast and a water mist. We use dry air-chilling, circulating pure cold air with no water added, which is the original air-chill process,” he says.

He says the company also utilizes other non-traditional technologies, including ‘controlled-atmosphere stunning,’ before the birds are bled out. “The chickens are put on a belt, then put to sleep using CO2 [carbon dioxide]; they are not shocked into unconsciousness with electricity,” he says. The company is the only one in the U.S. to use the process, Siebert says.

“We pioneered this method of stunning because it’s more humane for the birds and it’s also more humane for our employees, who have to handle the unconscious birds,” he adds.

Immersion loyalists

There is no great expectation that large numbers of poultry processors, especially large companies, will switch from water-chilling to air-chilling, says Richard Lobb, spokesman for the National Chicken Council. He says water-chilling is a (Photo courtesy of MBA Poultry) safe, effective means of chilling raw poultry to ensure pathogen growth is stopped.

“The use of chlorinated water in chillers help prevent the spread of potentially harmful microorganisms from bird to bird,” Lobb says. He adds that many studies have shown little difference or no in the microbiological quality of air-chilled or water-chilled birds.

In describing the process, Lobb said chickens are humanely slaughtered, cleaned and inspected before being packed or further processed. After inspection, the chickens must be chilled, depending on weight of slaughter, in order to inhibit the growth of microorganisms that can cause spoilage, per USDA rules.

He says immersion in a tank of chlorinated ice-cold water – known as a chiller – is the preferred method of the industry in the U.S. because it is the fastest and most-effective way of getting the birds down to 40°F or below. Chickens typically spend 45 minutes to an hour in the chiller and are moved through it by paddles or other devices. The water is continually replaced at the rate of one-half gallon per bird going into the chiller. Lobb says small amounts of water are retained in the finished poultry products as a result of the water-chilling process. Six years ago, USDA regulations allowed retained moisture in the poultry products only to the extent required by food-safety measures such as water-chilling, and companies are required to declare on the package the approximate level of moisture retained. Lobb says most poultry processors use water-immersion chilling because water is the most efficient conducting medium for removing animal heat, and modern chillers are efficient, quick and economical.

One question consistently asked about the differences between airchilled vs. immersion-chilling has to do with food safety. There have been studies showing air-chilling chicken does a better job of eliminating microorganisms on raw chicken, compared to birds immersed in chlorinated ice water. “We say air-chilling produces a higher-quality product,” MBA’s Siebert points out. “But in Europe, there was concern about food safety. I’m not saying immersion-chilling in the U.S. produces an unsafe product. But in Europe, regulations don’t allow water chillers to be used.” He adds some studies show a lower level of Salmonella and Campylobacter in air-chilled birds, while other studies show no difference at all.

NCC’s Lobb says there is no difference in safety between air-chilling and water-chilled chicken. Studies show chickens immersed in a water bath are as safe as those going through an airchilling process. One study conducted by four scientists from the Univ. of Georgia, the Agricultural Research Service and the Univ. of Connecticut and published in the Journal of Food Protection measured the effect of dryair or immersion-chilling on the recovery of bacteria from broiler carcasses. Microbes studied included Salmonella, Campylobacter and E. coli. The study showed air- and immersion-chilled carcasses without chemical intervention are microbiologically comparable, and a 90 percent reduction in E. coli, coliforms, and Campylobacter can be gained by chilling.

One advantage of air-chilled chicken cited by companies is product benefits. They can’t compete with the big boys in price, but the benefits outweigh theirs, they add.

Air-chill mavericks

That’s how Rex Moore, sales and brand manager for Maverick Ranch Natural Meats, Denver, describes the appeal of air-chilled chicken to a small but growing number of devotees in the U.S. Eight years ago, he and his brother, Charlie Moore, whose company has raised natural meats including beef for 25 years, contracted with a Canadian poultry producer, Giannone Poultry in Quebec, to raise chickens for their air-chilled poultry offering. “The natural-beef market has grown to $1 billion in annual sales. We think chicken processed this way will go in the same direction,” he says.

“Twenty-five to 50 percent of chickens raised in Canada go through the air-chilling process, compared to the very small number in the U.S.,” Moore says. He also claims his birds have a longer shelf-life, are better tasting and contain less water than birds cooled down in a water-immersion chiller.

“We don’t sell water as part of our chicken, but the big companies using immersion chilling do,” he says.

Moore acknowledges the current depressed economy in the U.S. is not helping the air-chilled chicken market. But once people try air-chilled, they’re reluctant to turn back, even though the cost for air-chilled can be three times as much as chicken cooled in a water-immersion chiller.

There also seems to be a tie between air-chilled chicken and a desire by consumers to buy organic and natural products. According to NCC’s Lobb, one major processor, Pilgrim’s Pride, uses air-chilling in its plant in Live Oak, Fla. He also says organic or natural chicken is not required to be air chilled, and some of those brands, like Coleman Natural, are water-chilled.

But both MBA Poultry, the producer of Smart Chicken, and Maverick Ranch Natural Meats sell birds containing no antibiotics. The processors describe them as “free-range birds” and say they are fed a vegetarian diet.

“I think people interested in buying chicken differentiated from normal supermarket chicken, whether the chicken is natural or organic, are also very interested in how the birds are produced,” says MBA’s Siebert. Agreeing is Maverick Natural Meat’s Moore. “The health-oriented consumer is willing to pay more for the benefits he or she is going to receive from this product,” he says. “The amount of opportunities is growing, as people become more concerned about what they”re eating, how their food products are made, and where they come from,” he says.

Bernard Shire is M&P’s Washington correspondent, contributing editor and feature writer based in Lancaster, Pa. With a background in editing and writing for daily news publications, he also works as a food safety consultant and writer for Shire & Associates LLC.