Poultry Slaughtering and Processing

SIC 2015

Companies in this industry

Industry report:

This industry includes establishments primarily engaged in slaughtering, dressing, packing, freezing, and canning poultry, rabbits, and other small game, or in manufacturing products from such meats, for their own account or on a contract basis for the trade. This industry also includes the drying, freezing, and breaking of eggs.

Industry Snapshot

The U.S. poultry business evolved in the mid-1930s into a vertically integrated industry in which a few top companies accounted for most of the country's broiler chicken and turkey production. Vertical integration combined the previously independent and fragmented operations of feed mills, hatcheries, farms, slaughterers, and processors into giant conglomerates that managed all stages of production. The poultry industry is composed of approximately 95 percent of the animals slaughtered for food annually in the United States.

The five primary product categories handled within the poultry processing industry are chicken, turkeys, ducks, geese, and egg products. Available chicken types included young broilers/fryers weighing an average of three pounds; specially grown, six- to eight-pound young roasters; capons, surgically desexed male birds weighing more than nine pounds; heavy hens, often called stewing hens, that are more than a year old and weigh four to six pounds; and Rock Cornish or Cornish game hens, young chickens weighing about one or two pounds. About 18 percent of ready-to-cook chickens are sold as whole birds, and the rest are sold as broiler parts or boneless chicken breasts or thighs.

Broilers, which are chickens raised specifically for table consumption, represent the largest component of the industry. Broiler production was concentrated in 17 southeastern states on the eastern seaboard and Gulf of Mexico. This so-called "broiler belt" was the source of 90 percent of production. Georgia, Arkansas, Alabama, and Mississippi were the top four producers of broilers. No such regional concentration existed in the turkey sector.

In the late 2000s, broiler producers were faced with increasingly higher fuel and feed costs forcing to cut production to offset price increases. Corn alone had climbed from $2 a bushel in 2007 to roughly $5.75 in 2008, thus cutting into profits. With the ethanol craze in full swing, there was no telling how long feed costs would remain at historical levels. According to the USDA, broiler meat production continued to decline in both 2008 and 2009.

According to the Annual Survey of Manufacturers, the total value of production for all poultry types was $51.2 billion in 2008. Young chickens, including bulk, chilled, frozen, whole, and parts, was valued at $31.3 billion in 2008. Hens and fowl, including frozen, whole, and parts, generated $578 million in 2008. Turkeys, including frozen, whole, and parts, added $5.2 billion in 2008 to the industry total. Other poultry and small game, including frozen, whole, and parts, shipped $690 million in 2008. Processed poultry and small game (20 percent or more poultry or meat) added $12.96 billion in 2008.

Organization and Structure

Most establishments in the poultry and egg processing business are exclusive, but some red meat processing plants also slaughter poultry. Most broilers (99 percent) are produced under contractual arrangements in which the broiler company provides a grower with day-old chicks, and the grower then raises the birds in the carefully controlled environment of the grow-out house. Protected from disease and predators in an enclosed system, the birds are fed mostly a diet of vitamin- and mineral-fortified corn and soybean meal during the six-and-a-half week period it takes to bring them to a market weight of about four pounds. Prior to being sent to the processing plant, the birds are tested for traces of pesticides, toxins, or antibiotics in the ongoing United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) residue monitoring program. In 1935, it took approximately 16 weeks for a 3.5- to 4.5-pound broiler to be fully produced. By 2000, advanced technology had reduced that time to six or seven weeks.

The methods used in breeding, raising, slaughtering, and processing turkeys are almost identical to those used for chicken. Turkey hens reach maturity at about 16 weeks, with a market weight of 16 to 18 pounds. Toms take 19 weeks to reach their market weight of 28 to 30 pounds. Most turkeys are sold whole, either fresh or frozen.

The White Pekin duck remained the most popular duck breed for mass production in the mid-2000s. Annual production was about 21 million ducks, which were generally packaged and sold whole and frozen. Duck feathers and down used by bedding manufacturers are valuable by-products. The total population of geese in the United States rarely exceeds five million, and most are raised in Minnesota and Iowa.

The per capita consumption of eggs was roughly 253 pounds in the mid-2000s. The top five egg-producing states were Iowa, Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and California. Within the total industry, eggs accounted for 18 percent of the value of production and sales.

Rabbit meat is not recognized by the USDA as an "agricultural livestock" product (i.e., intended for human consumption) and is regulated under provisions for "wild game."

Background and Development

Beginning in the early 1930s, the poultry industry was dominated by many small growers and processors. Poultry processing was one of the nation's first agribusinesses, characterized by many small farms. In the early days, raising meat and poultry was secondary to egg production. One of the first stages in the mechanization of poultry processing was the accelerated development in the 1920s of incubators that could hold thousands of eggs. Farmers could start with 500 chicks and no longer depended on hens to hatch them.

Prior to World War II, home cooks were likely to buy chickens live. After the war, more and more consumers purchased either "New York dressed" chickens with only the blood and feathers removed or, in some areas, "dressed and drawn" birds with head, feet, and intestines removed. The change had far-reaching effects, transferring the preparation of poultry to the processing plant, which consumers trusted to be as clean as their own kitchens.

Starting in the 1940s, the poultry industry went through three major changes: an increasing rate of vertical integration, which was largely completed by the mid-1950s; the phasing out of small operations and the concentration of production among a few large firms; and the movement of processing operations to the southeastern states to be closer to the broiler supply.

Since mandatory federal inspection began in 1957, all commercially produced chickens have been inspected by the USDA for wholesomeness before going to market. Traditionally, inspection took place in the processing plant, conducted by a USDA inspector who relied on sight, touch, and smell to determine the wholesomeness of each bird as it passed by on a swiftly moving conveyer line. In 1978, the USDA introduced a faster, modified system in which three inspectors divided the task. One inspected the bird's exterior, another its viscera, and a third made a final inspection of the bird. A more scientific system, Pathogen Reduction and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP), was imposed in 1996 by the Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS). Under this program, inspectors identify hazards, determine the points at which they can be controlled, and recommend corrective action.

Because of the threat of serious disease and illness that could spread rapidly without adequate tracking, the USDA announced in early 2005 a mandatory animal tracking system to be functional by 2009. The proposed system would allow federal regulators to track an individual animal's movements to its place of origin. The poultry industry already had a tracking system in place in 2005 that was capable of tracking a flock of birds to its origin, but the system could not track individual birds.

Labeling poultry is another area regulated by the USDA. Starting in 1997, poultry could only carry the "fresh" label if the chicken had not been chilled below 26 degrees Fahrenheit. The ruling was part of the truth in labeling issue that changed food labeling throughout all industries.

In terms of processing, USDA regulations require that washed and eviscerated chickens are submerged in a water-filled chill tank that quickly reduces the birds' body temperatures to 40 degrees or lower to prevent multiplication of salmonella and other microorganisms commonly found on chicken skin. The regulations further require that the water in continuous chill systems be replaced at a rate of one-half gallon per chicken as birds were added to the system.

Food safety continues to be an issue for poultry processors. Campylobacter pathogens, common in chicken products, cause an estimated one million cases of food poisoning each year in the United States. Following such an outbreak of food-borne illnesses, the USDA required a new labeling policy under which safe-handling instructions explain the need to refrigerate poultry until it is cooked, cook it thoroughly, refrigerate or discard leftovers immediately, and keep work areas clean. In issuing the new labeling recommendations, the USDA cited surveys that revealed consumer ignorance of such basic food safety procedures. The government also cited data from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia, which showed that approximately 33 percent of at-home food poisoning incidents were caused by undercooking, and another 12 percent resulted from holding precooked food at unsafe temperatures. Safe-handling instructions were publicized by the leading industry associations, the National Broiler Council, and the National Turkey Federation. The USDA also instituted a new advertising campaign entitled "Fight Back" to instruct consumers in the safe handling of meat products.

Consumer objections to antibiotic and hormonal additives in processed poultry led many industry producers to advertise "free-range" or "organic" poultry products. California was the unequivocal leader in organic poultry production in the mid-2000s. Additionally, the FDA expressed concern for the growing threat of antibiotic-resistant strains of organisms and sought to repeal the approval of certain drugs, such as Baytril, due to concerns that they contributed to such microbial resistance.

In early 2005, researchers at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health published studies providing evidence that chickens raised without antibiotics were less likely to carry antibiotic-resistant strains of campylobacter. The study focused on the use of fluoroquinolones (FQs), a class of microbials used to control bacteria in broiler chickens. In 2003, Johns Hopkins researchers collected chicken products from two antibiotic-free producers (Eberly and Bell & Evans) and two conventional producers (Tyson and Perdue Farms) who claimed to have stopped using FQs in 2002. All samples were collected from local grocery stores. Results showed that the conventional products were 460 times more likely to carry resistant strains of campylobacter than their antibiotic-free counterparts.

Irradiation treatment of fresh or frozen uncooked whole carcasses or parts continued to grow in the industry, despite mixed acceptance from the public. Irradiation eliminated up to 99.9 percent of salmonella and 100 percent of campylobacter organisms, and probably any listeria bacteria as well.

In July 2004, the public was horrified by media coverage of assembly line slaughter of chickens at a Pilgrim's Pride facility in Moorefield, Virginia, showing workers stomping on live chickens and hurling them into concrete walls. Public outcry, led by the American Humane Society, led to grassroots efforts for legislative amendment to the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act of 1958, which exempted poultry as a covered species, but no new bill was passed into law. The United States fell behind the European Union (EU) making improvements for egg-laying hens, the most abused in the industry. New EU animal welfare standards banned the installation of new battery cages in 2003, and all battery cages were to be banned by 2012.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, over nine billion heads of poultry, or approximately 50 billion pounds, were slaughtered in 2006. The value of shipments in the poultry processing industry increased from $36.8 billion in 2002 to $46.7 billion in 2005. Broken down within the industry, approximately 71 percent of value came from broilers, 18 percent from eggs, and 11 percent from turkeys.

America's annual per capita consumption (PCC) of poultry products was 105 pounds in 2006, an all-time high. Beginning in 1992, chicken consumption for the first time surpassed that of beef, America's former top meat choice, a trend that continued in the twenty-first century as red meat PCC, which included beef, pork, veal, and lamb, dropped to 116 pounds in 2006, down from 122 pounds in 1999.

A survey by the National Broiler Council cited that 50 percent of consumers ate chicken at least twice a week. The survey indicated taste, healthfulness, and versatility as the top three reasons consumers choose chicken. The USDA predicted that pork and poultry per capita consumption will continue to increase.

The market for chicken parts became increasingly segmented, with separate destinations for white and dark meat. Nearly all white meat remained in the United States, while dark meat was much more likely to be exported.

Current Conditions

In 2008, the poultry processing industry shipments were valued at $58 billion. The National Chicken Council reported U.S. broiler consumption fell to 85 pounds in 2008. The annual per capita consumption of turkey dropped to 16.9 pounds per person in 2009.

The industry produced 35.5 billion pounds of broiler meat in 2009, down 3.8 percent compared to 2008. Broiler production was expected to increase slowly throughout 2010 as economic conditions improved. However, turkey meat production was projected to fall 1.6 percent compared to 2009. Egg production was expected to increase slightly to 6.5 billion eggs.

The Humane Society continued in its attempts to eliminate the suffering of birds during slaughter. Utilized by seven U.S. slaughterhouses, "controlled-atmosphere killing," commonly referred to as CAK, kills birds with a "mixture of inert gases." The Humane Society targeted Smithfield Foods, which holds a 49 percent stake in Butterball, to consider using the CAK method. With the CAK method, slaughterers and processors end up with a higher standard product and yield, increasing their bottom line. Some poultry retailers, such as Safeway and Costco, were already using turkeys slaughtered by the CAK method. Others, like Burger King and Popeye's, were giving purchasing preference to suppliers who switched to the CAK method.

Industry Leaders

The United States is the largest poultry meat producer in the world. The largest turkey processor in the U.S. was Butterball LLC, which was formed when Carolina Turkeys purchased the Butterball brand from ConAgra in 2006. Other leaders included Jennie-O Foods, Cargill Turkey Products, and Pilgrim's Pride.

Pilgrim's Pride emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to again take the title of the world's top chicken processor in 2009. The company reported revenues of $7 billion in 2009 and employed 41,200.

Tyson Foods, Inc. processed 41 million chickens weekly and distributed throughout the U.S. and over 90 additional countries. Tyson reported revenues of $26.7 billion in 2009. Total sales included 393,000 head of pork and 139,000 head of beef weekly.

Smithfield Foods, Inc. produced turkey and turkey products through its Armour-Eckrich operations and its 49 percent stake in turkey producer Butterball, the largest U.S. turkey producer. The company posted revenues of $11.2 billion in 2010 and 48,000 employees.

According to the National Chicken Council, top broiler producing companies in mid-2008 based on market share were Pilgrim's Pride (20.3 percent); Tyson Foods (20.0 percent); Perdue Farms (7.6 percent); Sanderson Farms (5.8 percent); Wayne Farms (4.7 percent); Mountaire Farms (4.4 percent); House of Raeford Farms (3.3 percent); Keystone Farms (3.3 percent); Foster Farms (2.8 percent); and Koch Foods (2.5 percent). Collectively these 10 boiler companies produced 539 million pounds of "ready-to-cook" broilers.


The poultry processing industry became increasingly automated but continued to employ a large number of cutters, trimmers, and packers. In 2007, the U.S. Department of Labor reported 239,200 workers employed in the poultry processing industry, of which 212,700 worked in production.

Poultry processing is repetitive work, and the industry is notorious for its high rate of repetitive motion injuries. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced new ergonomic guidelines in 1999 in an attempt to address the situation. The industry is also prone to high rates of injury in the processing plants.

America and the World

Despite difficult economies in Asia and Russia, broiler exports rose steadily. However, strong foreign competition, weak demand in Russia due to the devalued ruble, and competition from pork depressed prices. As Asian markets suffered from various local bird diseases and contamination, exports to Hong Kong and China increased. Egg exports appeared to be suffering greatly from decreases in the markets to Mexico and Hong Kong.

Earlier projections called for broiler exports to reach 5.5 billion in 2008; however, exports reached a record 6.96 billion pounds. The majority of broilers were shipped to Russia, China, and Mexico. Broiler exports totaled 608 million pounds in January 2009, up 33 percent compared to January 2008. Still, broiler exports were expected to fall to 6.05 billion pounds for the year due to the global economic downturn weakening demand for meat products coupled with trade issues with both Russia and China. Egg exports were projected at 221 million dozen in 2009, up 15 million dozen from 2008. The majority of egg exports was expected to increase in the fourth quarter as the economy improved. The four largest markets for U.S. egg exports were Canada, Japan, Hong Kong, and Mexico.

Research and Technology

New processing and packaging technologies facilitated the poultry industry's rapid growth in the last half of the twentieth century. Numerous automated processes took the place of manual labor at various stages of production. For example, the mechanized killing machines capable of killing five birds per second, five times more than a skilled worker could accomplish with a sharp knife, were introduced in the 1960s. Defeathering operations were also automated.

Mechanical eviscerating machines came into use in the 1970s. At about the same time, mechanized cutting of the birds into parts was increasingly performed in processing plants rather than by meat cutters in retail outlets. The late 1970s also saw the introduction of automatic deboning machines capable of processing up to 800 pieces of chicken a minute and separating edible meat from bonier parts. The machines also collected meat scraps from partially defleshed carcasses, and the scraps were used in the further processing of patties, soups, luncheon meats, and other products.

Ultra-thin, high-pressure water jet cutting and shaping delivered the ready-to-cook convenience of portioned chicken that consumers began to expect. Video cameras sense the changing pattern from a light projected on a partially prepared carcass. A computer receives the information, calculates the best cutting patterns, and sends directions to water jet nozzles, which then make precise cuts, trimming and portioning the chicken at the same time. Another machine uses pistons to force chopped chicken through molds that create three-dimensional formed products. The possibilities include geometric shapes, concave patties, and pieces that look like boneless breasts.

Since sanitation has always been a concern, the poultry processing industry continues to research chemical cleansers and new dispensing techniques. For example, some firms experimented with low-cost robots that transfer a variety of poultry products from conveyer belts to other processing areas. Also, improved inspection methods and the use of irradiation increased poultry safety.

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