2004: The first industry-wide round of poultry-welfare audits required by restaurant chains was conducted.

2004: A Praxair team looked at a European gas-stunning system that could radically improve turkey slaughter.

2005: Randolph Cheek attended a demonstration by Drs. J. Paul and Yvonne Vizzier Thaxton at Mississippi State Univ. on a new slow decompression stunning system involving a chicken, a chamber with a plexiglass lid and a hose to suck out the air.

Three important dates, one important result: improved welfare for chickens and turkeys.

The 9 billion chickens and 250 million turkeys processed in 2012, represent 95 percent of the animals slaughtered in the US. Humanely handling that many birds is an important job, one that has shown remarkable improvement over the last decade. The dates mentioned above represent landmarks that have changed the poultry industry forever.

Implied responsibility

Dr. Karen Christensen, director of technical services at Fort Smith, Ark.-based OK Foods, is upbeat when discussing poultry welfare. For her, "doing things right" goes beyond supplier requirements or undercover videos.

"We recognized from the beginning treating the birds correctly was part of being responsible when you're processing animals for food," she says. "As people working in agriculture, we've always believed taking care of our animals was the right thing to do."

Christensen says poultry audits are more comprehensive than those done in beef or pork. In a vertically integrated industry, "the audit covers the entire life of the animal," she says.

Dr. Yvonne Vizzier Thaxton, director of the Center for Food Animal Well-Being at the Univ. of Arkansas, echoes Christensen's assessment: "We audit everything. Every aspect of a broiler chicken's life, from the time an egg is laid until the bird is dead, is audited by someone. Because they are live animals, you have to continually find ways to improve. We have reduced previously major issues to relatively minor ones."

Making strides

And the improvements in poultry welfare have been palpable. One striking statistic is the reduction in broiler mortality rate. According to the National Chicken Council, the broiler mortality rate has hovered around 5 percent since 1970, and as recently as 2006 was still at 5 percent. After being static for more than 30 years, that rate has steadily declined to 3.8 percent in 2011. That 1.2 percent gain translates into 108 million broilers not lost to injury or illness each year. Reduction in mortality is improvement in welfare.

Dr. Temple Grandin, world-renowned animal-welfare expert, developed humane-handling audits used in the livestock and poultry industries. She’s noticed the difference in poultry welfare since supplier audits started.

"They've improved a lot in lameness, stunning, handling and in cage maintenance," she says. "Compared to 10 years ago, it's gotten much better."

One notable improvement is the reduction of injuries that cause broken wings. When Grandin started auditing poultry, "5-6 percent broken wings was normal," she says. Once audits established baseline measurements, companies began improving them. "Now, it's down to 0.5-1 percent," Grandin says.

That 4 percent improvement translates into 360 million painful injuries eliminated to broilers per year.

One example of handling improvement is in broiler-catching operations. At growout farms, chickens are caught and loaded into transport containers for the slaughter plant. Catchers used to receive incentives based on the number of birds caught per hour; welfare was secondary. With the focus on reducing broken wings, the incentive changed.

Thaxton recounts the change: "Most companies now have a bonus or reward program to maximize welfare of the bird. Everybody has a training program for their catchers, how birds are handled and placed in the cage," she says. Rewarding the right behavior improved handling.

While auditing prompted improvement through small process changes, one area required more than incremental gains on the existing system.

Live shackling sensible birds is an issue, Thaxton says. Researchers note that birds exhibit signs of stress when inverted for shackling. The frantic flapping and righting activity is not only noisy, but flings litter and feces through the air. "You better not have your mouth open if you visit the hanging area," advises a poultry veteran.

Electrical stunning is also a stressor. Birds can suffer pre-stun electrical shocks due to incidental contact with an adjacent bird or the stunning bath. One manager estimates the rate of pre-stun shocks is over 20 percent.

Shackling sensible birds runs contrary to the intent of the Humane Slaughter Act (HSA). The act states that for livestock, no animal will be "shackled, hoisted, thrown, cast or cut unless first rendered insensible."

But poultry is exempt from the HSA. Shackling sensible birds is standard procedure in poultry operations, a fact troublesome to many. One insider asserts, "We're not where we need to be until we comply with the Humane Slaughter Act in poultry."

To address this obstacle, two innovative solutions have emerged, which catapulted humane poultry slaughter into the 21st Century. Called Controlled Atmosphere Stunning (CAS), each solution has yielded two startling successes in two different applications.

A case for CO2

In turkey plants, the level of difficulty in shackling sensible birds is multiplied by the size of production turkeys. The job of unloading and shackling live 45 lb. tom turkeys is a difficult and brutal job, leading to bruising and injury to both people and turkeys. With high worker injury and work comp rates, live shackling is a human and humane welfare concern.

Praxair, an industrial gas supplier with decades of experience serving food customers, was familiar with the challenge of handling turkeys. Pedro Hernandez, associate director of business development, recounts how the company envisioned a welfare solution for turkeys.

"In 2004, we became interested in CAS that was being used in Europe. We studied it and thought it was an area we could impact on in the US," he says.

"We needed a partner," Hernandez adds, "and that led us to Cooper Farms. We had worked with them on other projects. They took a significant amount of risk with us; they were pioneers of implementing CO2 stunning and are reaping the benefits of this technology."

Praxair developed a multi-step cycling of CO2 with the birds still in the cage to render them inactive. In a unique approach, rather than convey the birds through a controlled-atmosphere module, Praxair brought the CO2 to the truck, so turkeys are stunned before they leave the truck.

"The system clamps on to the trailer, and starts circulating CO2 throughout the cages," says Hernandez. "We gradually increase the CO2 levels inside the cages to a point where the birds are irreversibly stunned. After that, we evacuate CO2 so it's perfectly safe for employees to go in and remove the birds. Then they're hung on the line and processed."

In 2006, the system went online at Cooper Farms' Ohio processing plant. The stress of hanging conscious birds was eliminated. As a result, yield, quality and worker safety improved dramatically. The success at Cooper Farms has motivated other processors to adopt the technology. Since 2006, Hernandez estimates, 30 percent to 40 percent of the turkey industry is using CAS.

"We have five installations in the US and one in Europe for turkeys," he adds. "We also developed a system for chickens used in Europe. One is operating in Spain and another will open in Russia in 2013."

Praxair continues to modify the system. They have introduced a 1/3 truck system that allows processors to meet production and space needs.

LAP opps

In 2004, while Praxair studied CO2 stunning in Europe, Dr. Yvonne Vizzier Thaxton, and her husband, the late Dr. J. Paul Thaxton, were researching Low Atmospheric Pressure Stunning (LAPS) at Mississippi State Univ. A concept that had been around for years, the system uses slow decompression to achieve insensibility. Slow, controlled decompression induces a gentle decline into unconsciousness without stress.

That promising research led to a collaboration between the Thaxtons, Kosciusko, Miss-based equipment manufacturer TechnoCatch and Christensen at OK Foods. TechnoCatch developed the industrial application for LAPS, and OK Foods provided the setting for the commercial application.

Randoph Cheek, vice president at TechnoCatch, speaks about developing the technology for production:

"We started to look at LAPS in 2005. I can't tell you how many trials we did at OK foods and our facility in Kosciusko, Miss., and Mississippi State Univ., trying to find the correct draw-down for slow decompression."

After several years of testing, tweaking and peer reviews, the system went online at the OK Foods plant in 2010. The results have been, well…stunning. Lower stress in LAPS has been scientifically validated. Corticosterone, (the stress hormone in birds) is significantly lower in chickens that undergo LAPS than birds that are shackled and stunned.

Cheek says there is also less stress on people with LAPS: "The big plus is the employee environment in the hanging room," he adds. Prior to LAPS, "you would never take a visitor to your hanging room." Hanging rooms were dimly lit, noisy and dirty. It was not a pleasant place, and most people didn't work there very long.

"With LAPS, everything is nice and quiet," Cheek says. "The hanging room will have its lights on; they're not bundled up like they're preparing for a sandstorm from chicken litter. A radio will be playing, you can hear each other talk, it's air conditioned."

Cheek is confident the LAPS system will expand to other processors. "We have a couple of finished proposals in, but corn costs put the brakes on capital construction for poultry processors at the moment."

"As we improved bird welfare, we have improved yield and grade at the processing plant, which means that the bottom line is potentially improved," Thaxton says.

Christensen adds, "We see improvement in tenderness. You don't have to age meat before it is deboned. Broiler meat can be deboned immediately after processing, eliminating double handling and cooler space."

CO2 and LAPS require a significant capital investment. Hernandez and Cheek say the payback in quality, yield and costs provides a good ROI . Hernandez estimates the payback on the Praxair system is "one-and-a-half to two years."

Cheek says: "We've proven that treating the birds better generates ROI. While its core value is in welfare, there's also the financial benefit."

Other welfare improvements have impacted the bottom line, as well. Reducing broiler mortality has brought 108 million birds to slaughter that wouldn't have made it in 2006, translating to nearly $402 million in gross sales value. Add another $150 million for value of the wings that would have been broken 10 years ago, and the question becomes: How can a company not afford to devote the right resources to poultry welfare?

"We have a responsibility to customers so they know we are doing the right thing," Christensen says. "Auditing has been a way we can communicate to them, and give them the confidence that the right things are happening out there. That has been an important bridge, because that gives them confidence. We're out there making a difference, and that's really what we hope to do."

A 30-year veteran of processing-plant operations, Jerry Karczewski is a contributing editor based in Sodus Point, NY. He also is the owner of Karczewski Consulting (www.diversecattle.com), which provides humane handling and plant operations consulting.