Hundreds of employees check in at the chicken plant in central Pennsylvania, slipping on white jackets, blue gloves, and earbuds before entering the 40-degree room. They step through suds on the redbrick floor, disinfecting whatever mess their shoes may carry, wash their hands, and get to work alongside conveyor belts of chicken meat.
The pounds of chickens moving within the 160,000-square-foot further processing, packaging, and par frying facility came from within 100 miles of Fredericksburg, Pa. The meat makes its way through deboning machines, a waterfall of panko bread crumbs if its fate is to be a chicken nugget, packaging films, and into boxes. Along the way, workers have various roles, such as inspecting packaging.
While technology and the scale of how this chicken is raised, produced, packaged, and sold has dramatically changed in the 125 years that Bell & Evans has been operating, owner Scott Sechler says its mission has remained the same.
When others were using pesticides on crops and giving antibiotics to chickens, Sechler said, he rejected it. He believed a chicken with a cleaner and more stress-free life led to better tasting meat and he focused on customers willing to pay extra for that quality.
Sechler now sells his premium, all natural, and organic chicken as far away as Hawaii, Singapore, and Hong Kong. The chicken can be found in such stores as Wegmans, Whole Foods, Kings Food Markets, Giant Food Stores, and the new Giant Heirloom Markets in Philadelphia.
Sechler views the phrase “free range” as “bastardized" and he said that it is more important that his company is listed in the Organic Integrity Database, which includes USDA-certified organic businesses. To receive an organic certification, his chickens must be raised according to USDA organic regulations throughout their lives. He has no plans to sell any products other than chicken.
No matter what humane labels are on the chicken, Amber Canavan, spokesperson for the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), said companies should be developing vegan products.
“Any company that is really looking toward the future should be seeing the writing on the wall … Our culture is moving away from using animals for food,” Canavan said. “Whenever an animal is being used for profit, they always suffer.”
Still, making the most popular meat in the country has proved lucrative. In the last five years, Sechler said sales have grown 15 percent to 20 percent in the nonorganic options and 20 percent to 30 percent in organic. He expects revenue this year to be about $400 million, surpassing last year.
Of the top 30 chicken companies, ranked by the pounds of live chicken annually, Farmers Pride Inc., which operates as Bell & Evans, ranked 21st with about a million birds a year totaling 5.5 million pounds, said Tom Super, spokesperson for the National Chicken Council, a trade association. The top two are Tyson Foods with 235 million pounds of live weight and Pilgrim’s Pride Corp. with 168 million.
Shoppers are looking for leaner cuts of meat as people are becoming more health conscious, according to an August report on the Chicken and Turkey Meat Production industry from market research group IBISWorld. Industry revenue is estimated at $36.7 billion, and is projected to stay steady in the next five years.
Consumers choosing chicken over beef is driven by the lower cost of poultry, choices away from red meat, and a shopper’s ability to pull out a phone and research how anything was made, said Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst for the NPD Group.
“We’re seeing consumers want to know how products are brought to be,” Seifer said, adding that it’s not just in the food industry. “In the beauty industry, the clothing industry, they want to know what kind of materials were used, what kind of labor practices. Increasingly, the supply chain is becoming a bigger part, and a more important part, of your marketing message.”
It’s a main focus of Bell & Evans. The boxes of breaded boneless, skinless chicken thighs say “Raised Without Antibiotics.” A full packaged chicken reads “Free Range Chicken” and “Organic.”
On the website, “Our Standards” is a separate tab, explaining what the company means by “100% Air Chilled,” meaning that the company uses cold air and not chlorinated water to chill chickens, saving millions of gallons of water a year.
About 40% of the company’s sales are from its organic line, which is “quickly moving toward 50%,” Sechler said.
Bell & Evans is investing in a third processing plant to be built within sight of its second, and owner Sechler says his kids, ages 28 and 24, are prepared to take over one day.
“For us, it’s all about how good you can make something,” Sechler said. “Today, I feel like Bell & Evans is still the pioneer.”
Sechler grew up on his family farm in Kempton and then in Strausstown, both in Berks County, where he lives today.
He started raising his own chicken flocks at age 7, and was already questioning the status quo.
At the time, they were feeding fish meal to the chicken and he recalls thinking “the chicken house smells like fish; that’s not the chicken I want to eat.”
Sechler never went to college and instead ran the family business, trying out new ideas, from what they fed chicken to how they were housed, killed, processed, and packaged.
In the 1960s and ’70s, Sechler said, he would sell to butcher shops in Manhattan, with the perception that his meat was considered “kosher quality” but wasn’t truly kosher, the Jewish dietary standards that include how the animal is killed. This attracted Jewish customers who did not keep kosher but wanted premium meat. As others raced to the bottom for price, he chose to grow the business slowly with those willing to pay.
By 1986, Sechler purchased the Bell & Evans brand from the Bell family when the owners were nearing retirement without a next generation to take over. Sechler then merged the company with Farmers Pride and C.F. Manbeck, making him the fourth generation and second family to run Bell & Evans.
Margo Sechler, 28, and Scott Sechler Jr., 24, both work for their father as executive vice presidents. She handles family farms, human resources, and public relations while he deals with sales, marketing, and research and development.
Margo Sechler said she took a detour before returning to the family business, working for eight years in emergency medicine. She started as an EMT on an ambulance in 2009, became a registered nurse in 2013, and graduated with a bachelor of science degree in nursing from Penn State University two years later. When she started in the chicken business in 2014, she was working three jobs and today said she still works as a volunteer firefighter and EMT.
“We feel it’s important to take care of the people that work for us with insurance,” Margo Sechler said, explaining benefits for its roughly 1,800 nonunion employees. The health coverage, she said, includes no co-pays or deductibles and there is a free clinic. Weekly contributions are about $15 a week for an individual.
“People trust us,” said Scott Jr., stressing the company’s emphasis on quality over low cost.
A Bell & Evans chicken’s journey starts long before it reaches the processing plant floor, Margo Sechler said.
First, she said, the hens lay eggs in a breeder farm, which are then sent to Bell & Evans’ new hatchery near the plant.
Once the chicks hatch, there is feeding water waiting for them. Later, they’re shipped to various family farms within those 100 miles to grow. Then a nine-week cycle begins.
The family farms raise the chickens, usually 64,000, for about seven weeks of growth. They are fed corn, expeller-pressed soy beans, oregano, cinnamon, and yucca. Then there are two weeks of cleaning the chicken house once the flock is sent to be killed.
The thousands of chickens are placed in drawers in a truck and driven to the temperature-controlled barn.
While in those drawers, the chickens are slowly made unconscious with slow induction anesthesia, which the company introduced in 2011.
When the chickens are unconscious, they’re hung on a moving line while blades cut their neck.
This process, Scott Sechler said, is equivalent to a human getting anesthesia before surgery and never waking up. He said this process is more humane and leads to a better quality meat. Taste and the company standards, he said, are what keep people coming back.