MIFFLINTOWN, Pa. – The end came swiftly for the chicken I’ll call Bob.
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Propelled into a trough of sorts by a machine that tips a crate’s worth of birds onto the assembly line -- “They’re like children, sliding down,” the head kosher supervisor said -- chicken Bob was seized by a worker’s practiced hands and guided toward the shochet, or ritual slaughterer, along a stainless steel panel meant for calming the birds.
While a second worker held down his legs and body, the shochet gently grasped Bob’s head and, in what seemed like a split second, made his cut before the lifeless chicken was deposited into a funnel for the blood to drip out.
Every six seconds or so, another chicken followed.
The shochet, clad in a bloodstained yellow rain slicker and with a
transparent plastic cap covering his hair and beard, swayed rhythmically
as he worked, almost as if he were davening. Alongside him, 11 other
teams of three, each led by its own shochet, labored methodically.
In all, 60,000 chickens would be killed by late afternoon. It’s all in a
day’s work at Empire Kosher Poultry, the largest kosher chicken company
in the United States.
Empire churns out 240,000 chickens and 27,000 turkeys a week, from
quartered broilers to turkey salami. With a staff of 750, a fleet of two
dozen trucks and a vertically integrated operation in central
Pennsylvania where hatcheries, feed mills, farms and processing all come
together, Empire says it produces a healthier, cleaner, more reliably
kosher chicken than available anywhere else in America -- and in a
socially and environmentally responsible way.
To back up its claims, Empire agreed to give JTA a first-ever camera
tour of its facilities, providing unfettered access to everything from
the kill room to the farms to the assembly line where chickens and
turkey are sliced, processed and packaged into all manner of raw
poultry, nuggets, cold cuts and hot dogs. The only restriction was that
JTA was not permitted to photograph the kill room or certain proprietary
The recent tour had two ostensible purposes. One was to draw an implicit
contrast with other kosher food companies in the news. While managers
declined to get specific, the most infamous industry example is
Agriprocessers, the Iowa-based kosher meat giant that was felled in 2008
amid a host of financial crimes and labor and safety violations
following years of negative media reports. Agriprocessors’ former CEO,
Sholom Rubashkin, is serving a 27-year prison sentence for financial
fraud and money laundering. (He has appealed for a new trial, arguing
that the judge was biased.)
Second, and perhaps not unrelated, Empire officials say they are
considering expanding into the kosher meat market -- something the
company once did, albeit without great success. With plans on the
drawing board to go back into beef within a year -- Empire would buy
already slaughtered cuts of meat and build a business around processing
-- the company is launching a public relations campaign to tout its
approach to chicken production, including advertisements in the Jewish
A private company with annual revenues over $100 million, Empire says
the ways it raises its chickens and treats its workers are the keys to
the company's success.
Since 2008, Empire’s chickens have been antibiotic free, and the company
now has an organic line available at retailers such as Trader Joe’s and
Whole Foods. Empire’s workers are unionized -- a rarity in the kosher
business -- with salaries ranging from $8 to $11.40 per hour, and
health, vision and dental plans. Empire is a graduate of the U.S.
Department of Labor’s OSHA Challenge program -- the Occupational Safety
& Health Administration’s initiative to improve workplace safety and
health management -- and the company employs an on-site nurse. Over the
past 10 years, the company has invested more than $2.5 million in a
wastewater treatment facility that recycles its effluents.
“There is a better standard in that plant in terms of the conditions of
the workers and the way they’re treated -- not just physical conditions
-- compared to other chicken poultry processors,” said Wendell Young,
president of UFCW Local 1776, the union that represents Empire’s
In an interview with JTA, Rabbi Morris Allen, the program director of
the Conservative-backed seal of ethical kosher food production that will
be rolled out this fall, said that Empire’s practices appear to make it
a good fit for the Magen Tzedek seal, which guarantees certain
standards for treatment of workers, animals and the environment. Allen
visited the Empire plant several months ago.
What has enabled Empire to be profitable, company officials say, is its
vertically integrated operation. From conception to supermarket, Empire
approaches its chicken operation with scientific precision.
“We hatch our own eggs, feed them with our own blend of feed from our
feed mill and keep close watch as they grow. We have control from
conception until packaging -- no third parties,” said Greg Rosenbaum,
the company’s CEO. “We can say to the world that humane standards had
been applied at every stage.”
It all starts with breeding. While companies like Purdue may breed
chickens for large breasts because breast meat is in highest demand,
Empire’s chickens are bred for kashrut. That means large breasts could
add weight that damages the chicken’s tendons, rendering the chickens
treif, or unkosher, when slaughtered. No growth hormones are
administered; hormone use for poultry is illegal in the United States.
“We worked over the years to get the breed just right,” Jeff Brown,
Empire’s chief operating officer, told JTA over a chicken lunch. “It was
developed specifically for kosher processing.”
At Empire’s hatchery, the temperature, humidity and duration of
incubation is strictly calibrated to ensure maximum yield. Eggs are
turned every hour on the hour to keep the chicks inside from sticking to
the eggshells. Once the eggs hatch -- 82 percent will -- the chicks are
inoculated against avian sicknesses such as Marek’s disease and
coccidian before being trucked to farms spread out over five
Pennsylvania counties, all within 90 miles of the Mifflintown plant.
Area farmers raise the chickens, but Empire dictates and remotely
monitors how the chickens are housed and provides all the feed. It takes
approximately 1.8 pounds of feed -- mostly corn, but also some soy meal
and other ingredients -- to grow a pound of chicken. The birds’ diet is
strictly vegetarian and kosher for Passover all year round.
When the chickens are 38 to 48 days old, they are loaded onto crates and trucked to the plant for slaughter.
The workforce at Empire’s plant is full of incongruities. More than a
third of the farmers who raise the kosher chickens are Mennonites.
Rosenbaum, the CEO, is a Reform Jew who does not keep kosher. Rabbi
Israel Weiss, the head mashgiach, or kosher inspector, writes Hebrew
science fiction novels in his spare time under a pen name. The staff is
filled with Methodists, Presbyterians and Episcopalians whose
familiarity with kashrut -- and the Yiddish terminology that surrounds
it -- exceeds that of some religious Jews.
“For the first year-and-a-half it was a total learning experience,” said
Neenah Glenn Lauver, a Mifflintown native who works as Empire’s
director of product marketing. “Even still, I’m learning things about
the culture we serve.”
A phalanx of rabbis works at the plant, living on-site in dormitories
during the week and spending weekends at home with their families in New
York, Baltimore, Philadelphia or Lakewood, N.J. The plant has its own
mikvah, or ritual bath, where the shochets immerse before beginning
their workday, and a shul with multiple morning minyans and evening
classes. The father of Leiby Kletzky, the 8-year-old Chasidic boy from
Borough Park, Brooklyn, who was abducted and murdered last month, used
to work at the plant as a mashgiach.
In deference to the shochets and mashgiachs, the assembly line does not
run on Fridays so they can get home for Shabbat. In deference to the
assembly floor workers, the plant also closes on the first day of buck
A typical day starts in the kill room at 4 a.m., but it involves
frequent breaks for the shochets so they can stay fresh; no shochet
works more than five hours in a given day.
“Shechitah is a very complex job, you have to be rested,” said Rabbi
Aron Taub, a shochet from Baltimore who has worked at the plant since
1989. “It’s not like doing any other physical job. You have to have a
lot of concentration.”
Approximately every five minutes, a light goes on signaling the shochets
to stop their work and check their knives for nicks. If a shochet finds
an imperfection, all the chickens from the last few minutes are
discarded. That goes not just for his work but for all the hundreds of
chickens killed by the shochets during that period because the birds are
mixed in together. The reason is kashrut: If a single shochet’s work
could be singled out, he theoretically could come under pressure to
compromise his standards to achieve a better pass rate. That’s a
conflict of interest. In the contest between efficiency and kashrut,
kashrut always wins.
As the chickens move along the assembly line, a mashgiach inspects every
yolk sack and tray of intestines for treif characteristics. When a
mashgiach finds a slaughtered chicken that has a suspicious bulge on its
yolk sack, he pulls it off the line for further scrutiny. Another rabbi
making rounds takes a closer look, sometimes slicing open tumor-like
lumps to look for telltale signs of treif. Birds that are disqualified
are sold to companies that make dog food.
There are USDA inspectors on-site, too, but the rabbis remove about five
times as much poultry from the assembly line as the government
On the assembly line, the birds are soaked for 30 minutes in tap water
before they are salted for an hour and then triple rinsed. A machine
pulls open the necks to drain the blood. Another cuts open the wingtips
so water can get in.
As the chickens move along, a steel rod dislodges the windpipe and
eviscerates the bird. A machine with rapidly spinning, finger-like
protrusions removes the feathers. Plucking a kosher chicken is more
difficult for kosher producers because the warm water used by producers
of treif chicken to remove feathers cannot be used in the kosher
Eventually. the finished products are wrapped whole, cut up or processed
into foods like turkey pastrami, all-breast chicken nuggets or Empire’s
seasoned chicken in a bag, which cooks in a microwave in 20 minutes.
With a limited shelf life, the chickens are rushed onto refrigerated
trucks to delivery points across the country on the same day they are
killed. Some long-haul trucks have tandem drivers so they can drive
nonstop all the way to California. A chicken slaughtered in Pennsylvania
on a Tuesday can make it to a supermarket shelf in Los Angeles by
Just in time for chicken Bob to end up on your Shabbat table.