Tag Archives: raising chickens for meat

Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

23 Nov
Well, why?

Well, why?

To get into your backyard. And now what???

OK, chickens are becoming popular. No secret there. You probably know this because of the guy across the street who keeps four chickens in a shed. Or… you live in a rural area and have your own small flock. If you’re not into this groovy new hobby for eggs or avian companionship, it’s probably for meat. Chicken whose quality you trust, ’cause you raised it yourself. 

I often get asked about the legality of slaughtering one’s own chickens. (Pathetic, really. There I am, nicely dressed, holding a glass of wine at a party, and nobody wants to know if I’m free later… they only want to talk about meat provenance.) 

Anyway, IS it legal? Can you kill and eat chickens without the weight of the law falling upon you? What about selling your own chickens to friends? Do they have to be inspected? (the chickens, not the friends) 

The following is a summary of the USDA regulations regarding this thorny issue… but (reader beware) it gets kinda complicated. And may also have changed in the last ten minutes. 

Short answer? Yes, there are conditions under which poultry slaughter and processing are excempt from inspection. In fact, there are many. Keep in mind that by “inspection”, the USDA means continuous bird-by-bird checking-out by inspectors who are onsite during both slaughter and processing. Obviously, this isn’t possible for small operations, nor was it ever intended to be. 

First, a definition: the terms “processed” or “processing” are specific terms which refer to the defeathering, gutting, skinning, cutting, boning of poultry, including things like canning, salting, stuffing, etc. 

There is one absolute requirement: anyone who kills and processes birds for use as human food must produce a product that is neither adulterated or misbranded

An adulterated product is one that either contains substances that make it unsafe to eat (remember the melamine in Chinese baby formula?)… or one processed under unsanitary conditions. To learn more about proper sanitary conditions for processing, browse the USDA website or try this link (which worked when I tried it, but no guarantee!!!) 

A misbranded product is just what it sounds like. Thus, claiming that your chicken has been inspected if it isn’t is misbranding it. Exempt poultry cannot bear any official mark of inspection. In addition, there are specific labeling or identification requirements for exempt product. 

Now let’s take a gander at a few of the more relevant exemption categories. 


If you’re going to slaughter your own chicken and eat it yourself, inspection is not required. To paraphrase the USDA regulations: 

The slaughtered and processed poultry must be for the private use of:

  • the grower, producer or owner (who are not necessarily the same person)
  • members of his or her household, and
  • his or her nonpaying guests and employees (notice the word “nonpaying”?) 

Slaughter and processing must be performed by the grower, producer or owner (that’s you). 

The poultry must be healthy when slaughtered. 

The poultry must be slaughtered and processed under sanitary conditions that result in products that are fit for human food. 

The exempt poultry can not be sold or donated for use as human food. 


  • There’s no limit on the amount of birds you can slaughter and process for your own private use.



A custom slaughter facility kills and processes birds that belong to other people; in other words, it provides a service. If you’re a little squeamish about killing your own birds, you can bring them to a custom slaughterer, who’ll do it for you. 

Again, back to the USDA: 

A custom slaughterer cannot engage in buying or selling poultry products capable for use as human food (remember, this is a service); 

The poultry must be healthy when slaughtered; 

Slaughter and processing must be conducted in accordance with sanitary standards, practices, and procedures that produce products that are fit for human consumption (not adulterated); 

The poultry must be for the personal use of the grower or owner. In addition, the grower/owner of the poultry may not sell or donate the custom slaughtered poultry to another person or institution. 


  • A custom slaughterer who is also a poultry grower may raise and sell his or her live poultry to businesses not associated with his or her custom slaughter business.
  • Selling live poultry to a customer does not necessarily disqualify a business from the Custom Slaughter Exemption. For example, a custom slaughter facility may sell live poultry to a person and then custom slaughter the bird for them. However, a person who custom slaughters poultry may not buy or sell poultry products. (You may need to read this paragraph again; note the distinction between selling a live bird to someone and then slaughtering it, compared to selling an already slaughtered bird.)
  • A custom slaughter business is allowed to use a mobile slaughter/processing unit.

red chicken  


Poultry raisers who slaughter no more than 1,000 poultry in a calendar year can distribute the poultry without mandatory inspection under the following criteria: 

The poultry grower can only sell poultry products produced on his or her own farm;

Slaughter and processing must be conducted under sanitary standards that produce products that are fit for human consumption (not adulterated); 

The producer must keep records necessary for the effective enforcement of the Act [Title 9 CFR 381.175]; and 

The poultry products cannot be transported across state lines. 


Records necessary for the enforcement of the Act will include slaughter records as well as records that list sales of poultry products to customers. 

USDA/FSIS or State employees will review the records to determine compliance with the requirement of the sale of no more than 1,000 poultry in a calendar year.



If you raise more than 1,000 birds and are considering getting into chickens in a bigger way, you may be eligible for this exemption, providing you meet the following criteria: 

You slaughter and process no more than 20,000 poultry in a calendar year on your own premises. You cannot use your slaughtering facility to kill or process anyone else’s poultry (unless you’re granted a special exemption by FSIS.) 

Your poultry can only be sold/distributed within your own state. 

Your poultry must be healthy when slaughtered.

Slaughter and processing are conducted using sanitary standards that produce products that are fit for use as human food (not adulterated); 

You can only distribute poultry you have produced under the Producer/Grower Exemption.


OTHER EXEMPTIONS (which I won’t go into in detail) 


If you slaughter/process no more than 20,000 birds per calendar year for sale only to private homes, restaurants, or hotels for use in meals they serve to customers, then you’re eligible for what the USDA terms the “Producer/Grower or Other Person (PGOP) Exemption”. Under this exemption only you can distribute your products, and only within your own state. You cannot sell your products to a retail store or to another producer/grower. 



You may qualify if a) you’re a producer whose processing of exempt poultry is limited to cutting up; b) you buy live poultry for slaughter and limit processing to cutting up; or c) you buy poultry and distribute it as carcasses.

 This exemption gets complicated, and is probably outside the interest of most of my readers, right? So I won’t get into it, since I doubt that you’re keen to go into business cutting up poultry carcasses.

… and as for the initial question (Why did the chicken cross the road?), here are some answers from a few famous people:

The Sphinx:  You tell me.

Ernest Hemingway:  To die. In the rain.

Buddha:  If you ask this question, you deny your own  chicken nature.

Capt. James T. Kirk: To boldly go where no chicken has ever gone.


Where did that supermarket chicken come from?

2 Nov

Ever wonder where that supermarket chicken came from? As in, how it was raised? The answer may surprise you.

In the US (and many other countries), meat chicken production is vertically integrated; all production steps are handled by different subsidiary firms owned by one company. 

What this means is that the majority of commercial broiler chickens are produced by only three  companies: Cobb-Vantress, Aviagen, and Hubbard. Each sells a variety of different branded crosses in the form of chicks, which are distributed worldwide via their own specialized fleet of environmentally controlled chick trucks or by commercial airline carriers. 

Courtesy Tim Daniels, poultrykeeper.com

Courtesy Tim Daniels, poultrykeeper.com

Each company owns breeder farms that produce hatching eggs, a hatchery where chicks are born, a broiler grow-out facility where they’re raised, a feed mill to produce the chicks’ food, a processing plant where they’re slaughtered, a rendering plant and a distribution system that delivers products to store warehouses or individual stores.

With this degree of control, you’d guess right in assuming that the elements of a commercial meat chicken don’t just happen, but are carefully designed. Each company produces millions of pedigreed chickens a year. As the birds are grown, they are assessed for “best traits”; only the top three percent are kept for use as pedigree breeders.

In general, poultry breeders select for growth rate, feed efficiency, health and disease resistance, feather development, carcass confirmation, and meat characteristics. Modern poultry breeders work with molecular biological (genetic) markers associated with economic and consumer-important traits. But no genetic splicing, modification, or cloning takes place. In other words, there’s no such thing as a GMO chicken. All strains are developed through genetic selection and crossbreeding.

The birds are raised in what are called free-run systems. They live in barns that vary in size according to the size of the flock. The chickens are not de-beaked (a practice that relates to egg production), or caged. Instead, they roam around on a floor covered with wood shavings or straw (termed a deep-litter system). Water and feed are always available, there’s good airflow, and the temperature is carefully controlled, ’cause chickens don’t like being too cold or too hot. Space per bird is determined by the size of the bird being grown and ranges from about half a square foot per bird for small birds to 1 square foot or more for large birds. The chickens are free to roam throughout the litter floor house, take a dust bath, and find a comfortable spot. Nest boxes or perches are not needed for broilers. 

Their lives aren’t long. Birds are slaughtered when they reach the appropriate size for the product being produced. This ranges from about 28 days for “Cornish” chickens (2.2 pounds) to about 62 days for the largest broilers used for deboning (8 pounds) Broilers between these weight ranges are used for eight-piece cuts, portion-controlled operations, or for sale as roasters. 

As soon as the chickens are slaughtered, they’re chilled to take the carcass from its live temperature to the proper “meat temperature” of about 32°F (0°C). Chilling is done either via a cold-water bath or an air-chilling procedure. Most chickens in the United States are water-chilled—placed into a vat of ice water. In air chilling, carcasses are blown upon with cold air as they travel slowly along a track, a process that takes longer than water chilling. Many people prefer air-chilled chicken, claiming that the taste is better or that the chicken loses less water during the cooking process. You’ll have judge for yourself.

Generally, chicken is shipped from the slaughtering facility to its various destinations (restaurants, supermarket distribution centers, et cetera), on the same day it’s slaughtered. As for the recommended time to consumption, this, too, like everything in meat and life, varies.  

So – you ask – are there any other options?  Sure there are.  You can buy your chickens from an individual farmer, in which case it is very unlikely to be a commercially developed and distributed bird.  Instead, the chicken will be one of several meat breeds commonly used for small operations.

Or you might decide to raise your own birds by purchasing eggs or chicks from a hatchery that deals directly with individuals and small farmers, like the Murray McMurray Hatchery in Iowa.