As Americans become increasingly interested in food production, a movement of people demanding to know exactly where their food comes from has emerged. In a continued effort to be transparent with consumers, Sanderson Farms is pulling away the curtain and providing an honest look at how its chickens are grown and processed.
Infographic courtesy of Sanderson Farms
Step 1: Farm to hatchery
Sanderson Farms works closely with 900 family farmers throughout the southeastern United States. The company maintains a small geographical footprint in order to guarantee fresh, quality chicken at every step in the process.
Sanderson Farms partners with breeder farms in areas surrounding their hatcheries to assure the highest quality fertile hatching eggs. Twice a week, eggs are collected from these family farms and brought to the hatchery in climate-controlled trailers.
"We are responsible not only for the broiler flocks that will eventually go to market, but also for the breeder birds that lay those broiler eggs," said Wes Hall, division manager of Sanderson Farms McComb production. "Producing chicken is a fully integrated and continual process."
Once at the hatchery, the hatching eggs are stored until it is time to place them in the incubator, where they will stay until they hatch 21 days later. On average, an incubator holds over 90,000 eggs.
Chicks are vaccinated while they are still developing in their shells. When vaccines are administered, Sanderson Farms takes the opportunity to inject an antibiotic to fight the ever-present bacteria associated with natural egg delivery. This step is the only time anything is injected into a Sanderson Farms egg or broiler chicken. After the chicks hatch, they are separated from their shells, counted, immunized, and kept comfortable until they are delivered to the family farms where they will be cared for as they grow.
Step 2: Feeding the flock
By operating its own feed mills, Sanderson Farms maintains complete control over what birds consume throughout their lives. At the feed mill, raw ingredients, such as corn, soybean meal, fat, and lime, are mixed together, heated, and made into ready-to-eat pellets. This diet is specially formulated by staff veterinarians and nutritionists to ensure healthy birds and quality chicken. Just like humans, chickens require different calorie levels and types of food for energy as they grow. Sanderson Farms nutritionists are constantly adjusting feed formulas so the chickens have all they need.
The feed is transported in bulk from the mill to the farms where it will be fed to Sanderson Farms chickens.
Step 3: Hatchery to farm
Each family farmer provides the land and invests in the necessary buildings and equipment to grow the chickens to the company's expectations. Sanderson Farms supplies technical instruction, feed, shavings, veterinary care, and poultry medication, when it is necessary and prescribed by a veterinarian.
All vaccines and antibiotics are administered only under the direction of Sanderson Farms live production veterinarians, who are nationally board-certified and licensed in the states in which Sanderson Farms operates. Since the company's flocks are raised on the ground and not in cages, Sanderson Farms veterinarians are very concerned about treating diseases associated with soil, such as parasites and bacteria. Sanderson Farms veterinarians use antibiotics to fight both classes of disease-causing organisms.
Farms are visited weekly by Sanderson Farms staff, including veterinarians, who make sure everything is running according to company standards, as well as offer assistance, when needed.
"Winter and summer alike, we maintain the health of the flock every day," said Trent Hanegan, a Sanderson Farms family farmer in Collins, Mississippi. "Sanderson Farms veterinarians are constantly checking on the birds' health. If a flock needs treatment, they're more than willing to get the birds what they need."
Farmers live on the land so they are best able to care for their flocks. On average, family farmers live within a 50-mile radius of the Sanderson Farms hatchery. Farms typically have four to eight chicken houses, and Sanderson Farms places from 17,000 to 31,000 chicks per house, based upon size. These houses are climate-controlled and protect birds from biosecurity threats and predators.
"Our animals live a very good life. We spend a lot of time and money helping them grow and prosper the way they should," said Garrett McClure, a Sanderson Farms family farmer in Collins, Mississippi. "These chickens are our livelihood, and if they don't do well, neither do we. We are always going to take the very best care of them."
Step 4: Farm to processing plant
The only time Sanderson Farms birds are ever caged is for their own safety during transport from the farm to the plant. The chickens arrive on trucks and are quickly placed into the controlled environment of the assembly line where they are humanely stunned unconscious by a small electric current, and therefore free from pain, before processing begins.
After first processing, the birds are chilled down, processed a second time, and sent to be divided and/or deboned, depending upon the intended use. At each step of processing, Sanderson Farms product is inspected for quality, food safety, and regulatory-related concerns. After the product is packed into trays or boxes, it is weighed and a price label is adhered to the package, when requested by the retailer.
"Sanderson Farms provides a safety supervisor on staff and monthly safety meetings with all employees," said Perry Hauser, division manager of Sanderson Farms' McComb processing plant. "A committee made up of employees and managers meets often to discuss how we can operate as safely as possible. The plant is cleaned every day, and our on-site quality control department performs all the required tests to make sure we're meeting and exceeding USDA standards."
Step 5: Processing plant to grocery store
After the product receives its final inspection and is deemed market-ready, it is loaded on refrigerated trucks. Prior to loading, trailers are inspected for cleanliness and a properly functioning refrigeration system.
Once the trailer is loaded based on delivery schedule, it is closed with a tamper-evident seal. This seal is not broken until the product arrives at the distribution center to ensure product safety and wholesomeness. Most often, products are placed into the distribution center on the same day as delivery to the grocery store, to ensure freshness and quality.