ATLANTA — The Georgia Tech Research Institute’s (GTRI) Agricultural Technology Research Program (ATRP) fosters a culture of constant innovation and improvement through its strategic initiative focused on defining the next generation of poultry processing methods and technologies. The initiative, titled Poultry Production and Processing of the Future, funds R&D projects that take a “thinking outside the box” approach to improving industry processes from the growout farm to the processing plant.
One such project is the novel Farm Processing and Transport (FPaT) system. The poultry industry places a high priority on the humane treatment of broilers (chickens raised for their meat). Nevertheless, handling and transfer activities that occur before slaughtering are some of the most stressful for the birds.
As part of this process, the birds are manually captured and loaded onto trailers for transport from the growout farm to the processing plant, where they are then manually transferred to a moving shackle line for processing. During this period, they experience an entirely new and foreign environment and may suffer from heat and environmental stress during transport.
“The current poultry transport process has been largely unchanged for decades. We asked ourselves if we started to design the process now, would we do it the same way?” says Dr. Alexander Samoylov, GTRI principal research scientist and project director. “Our collective response was that it is time to reimagine how broiler transport works, and our FPaT system has a chance to do exactly that.”
The FPaT system dramatically changes the entire process by transporting carcasses instead of live birds to the processing plant, alleviating transportation-related bird welfare concerns while producing economic benefits by reducing manual labor requirements and transportation costs.
The system consists of two mobile units: a Processing Trailer and a Transport Trailer, each built on standard 53-foot trailers. In the FPaT production process, birds are stunned, shackled, and killed at the farm using a series of mechanical systems within the processing trailer, and then the shackled carcasses are transferred to the transport trailer for delivery to the processing plant.
The processing trailer can be easily moved around at the farm and to different farms and is designed to process up to 5,000 birds per hour, which is comparable to current industry live bird loading rates. The current design contains a stand-alone power system and was developed with farm operation in mind. The transport trailer can carry close to 4,300 birds.
To minimize cross-contamination between loads, the system is equipped with a washdown system that is used before carrying a different load.
In cooperation with colleagues from the University of Georgia Department of Poultry Science and USDA Agricultural Research Service U.S. National Poultry Research Center, the team recently field tested FPaT processing using water bath electric stunning followed by shackled transport. Tests were conducted at UGA’s Poultry Research Center. All carcasses were examined for physical damage (broken limbs), defeathering quality, and meat quality parameters such as pH, cook loss, lean color, and texture. No significant differences were observed between a control group (traditionally processed carcasses) and carcasses transported and processed via the FPaT system.
“We are extremely pleased with the initial field test results, especially the meat quality analysis that showed similar results between traditionally and FPaT-processed broilers, which suggests that the proposed process may be commercially viable,” says Samoylov.
In addition to improved bird welfare and minimal meat quality effects, the proposed approach also minimizes manual handling of the birds both at the farm and subsequently at the processing plant. This reduces labor requirements at the farm as FPaT can free up catching crews to perform other tasks, while also possibly eliminating one of the toughest jobs at the plant — hanging live birds onto shackles. Other benefits include preventing bird weight losses and eliminating DOAs (dead on arrival) during transportation.
“Another benefit of the FPaT system is its data collection system that can count and weigh carcasses. This data can then be electronically transferred to the processing plant, informing them of the exact number and weight of incoming product, which improves yield efficiency and helps the plant customize carcass processing,” says Samoylov. “The system also improves transportation safety by eliminating shifting loads since all the carcasses will be shackled and fixed in place, which reduces the likelihood of transport trailer rollover accidents.”
While the FPaT system holds promise, investigations are ongoing. The team is currently evaluating the effects of rigor mortis on subsequent carcass processing.
“One artifact of FPaT is that carcass processing is delayed,” Samoylov added. “This leads to an onset of rigor mortis, which can have an effect on defeathering, eviscerating, and cut-up at the processing plant.”
This article is reprinted from PoultryTech, a publication of ATRP of the Georgia Tech Research Institute, a program conducted in cooperation with the Georgia Poultry Federation with funding from the Georgia legislature.