The NY Times wonders whether we'll see a new adjective on our chicken packaging: stress-free. A recent article describes a new method of killing chickens, designed to  "render the birds unconscious before they are hung by their feet to have their throats slit." According to the story, this gassing offers a more humane way to slaughter.

The article cites two chicken companies, Pennsylvania's Bell & Evans and California's Mary's Chickens, that are testing the new method on opposite coasts. The companies are excited to offer a humane product, but worry about marketing their methods. The Times suggests consumers who care about the handling and treatment of animals don't want to know about the details of their demise.

The story describes Anglia Autoflow, the company who builds the "knock-out systems," suggesting several terms for packaging, ranging from "sedation stunning" to "humanely slaughtered." Regardless of what consumers want to see on the package, the system offers reassurance that the birds aren't in pain or discomfort right before death. 

The article goes on to describe a typical industrial chicken slaughter, where workers hang the conscious chickens by their feet and send them around the plant on a conveyor system, shocking them before a blade slices their throats. With the Anglia Autoflow, the birds go right from their shipping containers to the carbon dioxide chamber, so they're sleeping before the handlers hang them.

Anglia and Bell & Evans consulted with livestock expert, Dr. Temple Grandin, when designing the system. The Times writes that Grandin approved of the system because the birds "don't like being hung upside down," so making them unaware of this saves them from stress in their final moments. 

The story cites Bell & Evans owner Scott Sechler describing the gassing like "slow induction anesthesia," similar to what humans get before surgery. Sechler tells the Times his product's labels already include information about the conditions in which the birds are raised. He's looking for just the right description of the slaughter and plans to include more details about the gassing process on the company's website. 

The story discusses similar systems in Europe that abruptly gas the birds to death. Sechler told the Times the Anglia system is better because the birds don't suffer when they're slowly deprived of oxygen. Because the Anglia system only knocks the birds out, Sechler told the Times he is uncomfortable with the idea that the public will think they gas their chickens.

Because the birds are gently put to sleep before death, the Times says the meat will be of higher quality "because the birds faced less stress and also there would be less bruising and broken wings when they died."

The new method will also improve conditions for the workers in the chicken plants. The current methods require dim lighting to calm the birds as much as possible, and the workers contend with struggling, flapping birds.

Animal rights groups support method

According to the article, the switch to a knockout method has been pushed for years by animal rights groups, who feel the electrical stunning is inferior and potentially ineffective.

The new stun-then-slaughter method will be in place by April 2011 at Bell & Evans and by June 2011 for Mary's Chickens. The story continues by describing how both the companies combined process fewer birds per week than Tyson Foods but are still willing to spend approximately $3 million to convert their operations. The story reminds readers that the poultry industry has narrow profit margins.

However, the story cites Sechler again, noting that his customers "would come to demand birds slaughtered in a new way, which would force the industry to gradually switch over."

According to the article, labeling the killing method on packaging will help consumers know about the different ways their meat is processed, which will help to stimulate demand for the new method. Several other companies using similar systems don't explain their methods on packaging or on their website, even in places where the methodology is widely used (like Great Britain). The article ends by quoting Marc Cooper of Britain's Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Cooper feels that humane killing is a hard concept to market because "people don't want to know too much."