More than 25 million chickens destined for the dinner table hatch every day in the United States, and a large percentage of them spend their first 24 hours — at least — in the dark without feed and water, plus more time waiting to go to the poultry farm.
Not at the new $40 million Bell & Evans hatchery in Lebanon County, where the first chicks born late last month had immediate access to food and water, thanks to a new hatchery system from the Netherlands.
"This is like going back 60 years in time," Scott Sechler said of the birds' treatment. He owns Bell & Evans, a major supplier of natural and organic chickens to Whole Foods and other retailers.
The new hatchery, which Bell & Evans says is the first organically certified chicken hatchery in the world, is part of a years-long effort by Sechler, 58, to make chicken production as humane as possible, and to shape it to create higher-quality chickens that don't suffer from the "bigger, faster, and cheaper" mentality of the poultry industry.
In 2011, for example, Bell & Evans started rendering its chickens unconscious through "slow-induction anesthesia" before they were killed and processed, a move that won praise from some advocates for the humane treatment of animals. The birds are air-chilled rather than dunked in cold, chlorine-infused water.
"Bell & Evans has been at the forefront of using different technologies to answer some of the problems they see as far as how they want their birds to be treated," said Gregory P. Martin, a Lancaster County poultry extension educator with Pennsylvania State University.
Sechler — whose daughter Margo, 26, and son Scott Jr., 22, have joined him in the business — wants to continue steering the industry in a different direction, in no small part to keep his business thriving. The company had nearly $350 million in revenue last year, he said.
"We have more people going toward veganism than ever. The kids coming out of college today aren't sure they want to eat meat anymore," Sechler said, "because they read all these stories about the greedy chicken companies and the greedy food companies that are pushing everything to the limit."
In the new hatchery, Sechler wanted to revert to the level of animal welfare prevalent in the mid-20th century, when fertilized eggs at different stages of development were together in the bins where they would hatch. "Workers would pull a drawer out and pull out the chicks that hatched and put them in a battery that had feed and water," Sechler said. "They would do this all day long for three days."
As consumer demand for poultry increased, and pressures to be more efficient grew, the industry switched to what is called single-stage incubation, which means eggs roughly the same age are going into and out of the incubator. The first chicks are likely to hatch on Day 19, the last 30 to 36 hours later. The first birds to hatch sit in the dark with no food or water, though that is not quite as bad as it sounds, said Martin, the Penn State extension agent.
"Each chick, there is a yolk sac that's retained by the chick, a little bit of the yolk. That's nature's way of giving the bird three days of food," he said. "It is a tenuous three days. They really need to be eating and drinking after the second day."
Sechler thinks about the early birds. "If you're the first chick that hatches, you're really hungry."
To find the hatchery he wanted, Sechler visited facilities in seven countries, finally choosing one designed by HatchTech, a company near Amsterdam. The guts of the new hatchery were delivered to a site on Route 22 near the small town of Fredericksburg in more than 200 shipping containers.
The core innovation by HatchTech is in the hatching tray. It holds 90 eggs arranged in hexagons around openings. When chicks hatch, they fall a few inches into a bin where they can get food (4 grams of organic feed per peep) and water.
And do they. During a tour, the peeps, visible through glass doors, were eagerly drinking from small stainless-steel troughs attached to the side of the incubating rooms, which have gentle LED lighting.
Even while still in the incubator, the birds were notably bigger than standard commercial peeps. In Canada, where HatchTech installed its first North American facility, average chick weight increased 20 percent in the first eight months, according to an article last year in Ontario Farmer, a trade publication.
Academic research cited on the HatchTech website says peeps that have early access to feed and water are better able to use the nutrients in the yolk sac they bring with them into the world.
Because the chicks are bigger and stronger when they leave the hatchery, Sechler said, he expects the mortality rate during the first 10 days at the poultry farm to drop to less than half a percent, from 2 percent. Sechler contracts with 130 farms in central Pennsylvania.
He wants the world to know how his company treats chickens. He might install a webcam, so the public can see how long it takes for the chicks to dry out after hatching and to get food and water.
Nancy Roulston, director of corporate engagement for farm-animal welfare at the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, praised the new hatchery: "Bell & Evans is taking an innovative approach to address a previously unmet animal-welfare need by alleviating hunger and thirst for chicks and improving the animal handling in their hatchery."
Bell & Evans took the extra step of securing organic certification for the hatchery — the first to be so designated by Pennsylvania Certified Organic — even though it was not necessary. Organic standards for chickens do not kick in until the 49th hour of a bird's life.
That means formaldehyde can be used to disinfect eggs — Sechler's come from contract breeding farms — that hatch into certified organic chickens. "It's the least-cost way to deal with bacteria, but it's deadly," he said, which is why he has not used it for years. Instead of formaldehyde, the new Bell & Evans hatchery treats the eggs with peroxide, which is allowed under organic standards.
Eventually, Sechler wants his breeding chickens — the mothers and fathers of the birds to be slaughtered at Bell & Evans and sold as broilers — to be raised organically.
"Nobody in the world is doing that one," he said. "It's going to be pretty expensive, but that's one of my next 100 percent deals that I'm heading for."
Weekly hatchery capacity now.
Weekly hatchery capacity at full build-out.
Weekly Bell & Evans slaughterhouse capacity.
Bell & Evans employees.