Building an ‘Empire’

Building an ‘Empire’

The life — and death — of a kosher chicken

The assembly line at Empire Kosher Poultry’s plant in central Pennsylvania is the largest kosher one of its kind in America. Photos by Uriel Heilman
The assembly line at Empire Kosher Poultry’s plant in central Pennsylvania is the largest kosher one of its kind in America. Photos by Uriel Heilman

MIFFLINTOWN, Pa. — The end came swiftly for the chicken I’ll call Bob. 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 shohet, or ritual slaughterer, along a stainless steel panel meant for calming the birds.

While a second worker held down its legs and body, the shohet gently grasped Bob’s head and, in what seemed like a split second, made his cut.

Every six seconds or so, another chicken followed.

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 each week, from quartered broilers to turkey salami. With a staff of 750; a fleet of two dozen trucks; and an 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 a reporter 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 a prohibition on photographs of the kill room or of certain proprietary methods.

The recent tour had two ostensible purposes. One was to draw an implicit contrast to other kosher food companies in the news; 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.

Second, and perhaps related, Empire officials say they are considering expanding into the kosher meat market — something the company did once before, albeit without great success. With plans on the drawing board to go back into beef within a year Empire is launching a public relations campaign to tout its approach to chicken production, including advertisements in the Jewish media.

‘A better standard’

A private company with annual revenues of more than $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 and Health Administration’s initiative to improve workplace safety and health management — and the company employs an on-site nurse. During 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 employees.

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 with 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.

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 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 mashgiah, 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.

After the chickens are slaughtered and packaged, due to their limited shelf life, they 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 Thursday.

Just in time for chicken Bob to end up on your Shabbat table.

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