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How a kosher turkey company meets the Thanksgiving rush: An ancient-modern balancing act

November 25, 2014, 4:05 PM UTC

On any given day in November, trucks will deliver some 10,000 live white turkeys to Empire Kosher Poultry’s Mifflintown, Penn., processing plant. The birds are destined for ritual slaughter, rabbinic approval, a salt bath, and, finally, a Cryovac sealing machine. They’ll go from live beings to packaged poultry in about three hours flat. In 24 hours, there’s a good chance they’ll be on the shelf of a Trader Joe’s, Costco Wholesale, Whole Foods, or BJ’s Wholesale Club in a city along the Eastern seaboard.

Welcome to the mass production of kosher poultry, which began at Empire some 75 years ago, when Joseph Katz founded the company in Liberty, N.Y. and helped move the traditional Jewish meat preparation process from the local butcher shop and Jewish home into the mainstream.

Decades later, privately held Empire is now undergoing another kind of transition. Ten years ago, half of Empire customers kept kosher, while the other half did not. Now, that breakdown is about 23%—77%. Nearly four out of five customers who buy Empire’s antibiotic free, vegetarian-fed chickens and turkeys do not keep kosher, according to Empire’s own market research. In 2013, kosher products generated $17 billion in grocery business nationally, with sales increasing 10% on average every year since 2005, according to the Kosher Advisory Service. Market research firm Mintel found in 2009 that 62% of survey respondents listed food quality as the reason why they buy kosher food, compared to 14% who said they did so because of religious law.

Empire is gaining new customers who live in geographic areas that lack large Jewish populations, according to Harry Geedey, the company’s senior vice president of sales and marketing. This Thanksgiving, Sprouts Farmers Market, a specialty grocery store chain based in Phoenix, Ariz., North Carolina-based Ingles Markets, and Earth Fare, an organic food supermarket chain also based in North Carolina, will sell Empire turkeys for the first time.

“Not all, but a couple of those retailers are going after the natural consumer. They recognize the value—we’ve got kosher attributes, but we also [appeal to] the natural and clean market segment,” says Jeff Brown, president of Empire. Even at as much as $3.99 per pound, more than double the price of some conventional birds, sales of Empire’s turkeys have increased—by volume and dollars—over the last several years, most recently by percentages in the high single-digits, Brown says. The company declined to disclose its revenue figures.

Like other poultry producers, demand is highest and production most frantic in November. Empire will sell 3 million pounds of turkey this month, three times more than normal. But the poultry producer is unique in that meeting the Thanksgiving rush pits modern demand against ancient ritual. Even with 750 employees, 50 or so contracted farms, and a 100,000 square-foot plant that houses a jungle gym of stainless steel equipment, when a business abides by traditions that are thousands of years old, things can only move so fast.

And even with the secular holiday push and a growing base of non-Jewish consumers, the company’s focus is still on its core market, Geedey says. “We’ll take every [new customer] that comes along, but our focus has to be that Jewish consumer.”

A very old ritual, modernized

Empire’s turkeys approach their slaughter upside down. A bird’s feet are strapped into a rotating belt of shackles until it reaches the slaughtering station, where one worker removes the bird by hand from the shackles, and, with the help of another worker, holds it down on a stainless steel altar-like stand. Then, with one swipe of a knife, a Jewish person trained to perform ritual slaughter—known as a shochet; Empire refers to them as rabbis—slits the throat of the turkey, severing its carotid artery, esophagus, and windpipe, and ending the bird’s life.

From there, the turkey is placed head first into a stainless steel cone that will transport the bird to the next station. The floor below is dark red and dotted with white feathers.

The shochet is machine-like in his repetitive slaughter of the birds, but his methodical motions are interrupted every six minutes, when a red light above his head blinks on. The alarm indicates that it’s time to check the knife blade for any nicks. A chip or blemish on the knife would mean that it may have hit bone and is tearing a bird’s skin instead of slicing it in a single motion, which violates kosher law. If that happens, the knife must be thrown out, along with every bird killed since the last blade check. (Empire sells rejected birds to non-kosher producers or as protein for animal feed.)

The shochetim (the Hebrew plural for shochet) also break every hour and fifteen minutes. Ritualistic slaughter is a repetitive motion, so “you want to make sure someone gets time to rest physically,” says Elie Rosenfeld, Empire’s spokesperson. But mental rest is warranted, too. “[A shochet is] standing there slaughtering hundreds of chickens and turkeys per hour, even though this is your job and you’ve been trained to do it, and you appreciate what you’re doing, you have to step back for a second.”

From the slaughtering station, turkeys are hung once again by their feet and dangle—like clothes strung on a drying line—as they make their way through the next stage: feather picking. Conventional processors use warm water warmed to 130 degrees to help loosen feathers—a method that coagulates the blood under the bird’s skin. Since kosher law requires that all of a bird’s blood be removed, Empire refrains from using hot water. With cold water, eight picker machines buff the bird bare, like a vehicle in a car wash.

Next, the turkey is eviscerated; a mechanical claw reaches into its cavity and removes its guts. An Empire employee cleans out the cavity with what can only be described as a heavy-duty vacuum.

The guts are gone from the bird’s inside but stay attached to the turkey, drooping down its front, like bungee cords. The turkey continues the clothesline journey, passing in front of a United States Department of Agriculture inspector and a shochet. The USDA worker is looking for obvious signs of illness in the bird, like internal organ damage, while the rabbi inspects the bird further for any indication that it was unhealthy or injured when killed. A torn tendon, for instance, may pass the USDA’s standards but will get flagged by a religious inspector, Rosenfeld says.

The 50 shochetim employed by Empire are trained for about two years at a school or one-on-one. Most travel from the New York City area to Mifflintown, where they typically work and stay in the plant’s living quarters four days a week, before commuting back to the city in time for Shabbat on Friday evening. And they are a discerning bunch. “The [shochetim] will pull up to five times as many turkeys from the line as the USDA,” Brown says.

Once the turkeys pass inspection, their innards are removed, their wing tips are clipped to allow for more blood to drain, and they’re plunged into room temperature well water, which accelerates the de-blooding. From there, they head to the salt station, where Empire workers stand in pairs on either side of 30-gallon bins of salt. Each worker takes a damp turkey from a conveyor belt, plops it in the salt bin, and proceeds to scoop handfuls of salt first onto the outside of the bird then into its cavity. The turkey sits in the salt for an hour—another blood extraction trick. (Brown and Geedey are quick to tell you that buying a kosher turkey is like buying a bird that’s already brined, which saves at-home cooks a step.)

The turkey is then dunked in a tank of 34-degree water to remove the salt and bring down its temperature—it must be below 43 degrees two hours after slaughter, so says the USDA. It’s then transported to the carving station, where Empire workers stand around a rotating belt of turkeys, making one cut in each bird, until it’s diced into breasts, thighs, drumsticks, and other trimmings. Those pieces are either packaged on trays and or fed into a grinder, which spits out one-pound bricks of ground turkey that are weighed and packaged. Still more birds are packaged whole—60% of the whole turkeys Empire sells annually are sold during Thanksgiving season. The slaughter to packaging process takes about three hours, twice as long as at conventional plants, Brown says.

The big Thanksgiving push

After a walk through the plant on a Thursday in mid-November, Brown examines packaged turkey breasts—900 cases with eight breast trays each were sold that day. An employee hands him a 19-pound bird—most whole turkeys top out at 18 pounds. Brown bounces it in his arms. “That’s a big bird right there.”

Just how many live turkeys make it into Empire’s plant during the busy Thanksgiving season is an unforgiving game of guesstimating. Baby turkeys—or poults—grow for just 13 to 20 weeks before they’re slaughtered. But to secure the right number of poults for Thanksgiving, Empire must order them from breeders a year-and-a-half beforehand. This Thanksgiving’s birds were ordered in Summer 2013.

To make those estimates, “we’ll go off—obviously—previous years’ sales and if a new customer is coming on board, we’ll project what we think their [needs are] going to be. It can get tight at times. Occasionally we’re a little long,” Brown says. It’s better to be long around Thanksgiving since having too few live hens prompts a frantic hunt for the season’s most in-demand product.

The whole bird on your Thanksgiving table this year, Empire or not, will no doubt be a hen, a female. Male turkeys—toms—grow as large as 40 pounds—much too big to be sold in one piece. But toms are the turkey business’s go-to bird for most of the year. Their heft makes for sizable breasts, drumsticks, and thighs.

Empire never uses male turkeys. That leaves the company at a disadvantage since toms’ processing cost-per-pound is half that of hens, which would be especially helpful this time of year, when demand for meat is so great. Empire swore off toms in 2005 after it figured out that male turkeys were growing so big that they were developing lesions and other abnormalities on their lungs. The non-kosher rate was so high that it didn’t make financial sense to continue using them.

Brown explains all this as he stands inside a 12,000-square foot barn in Port Royal, Penn., about a five-minute drive from Empire’s processing plant. He’s joined by Mike Shutt, Empire’s director of live operations, and 10,000 four-week old turkeys that cluster around food and water trays in massive, white, pillowy clumps. Brown and Shutt are wearing hazmat-like suits to keep from infecting the antibiotic-free turkeys. Precaution is key to keeping these birds healthy: even the wheels of vehicles are disinfected before they roll onto the barn’s property. When the door to the barn first opens, the birds scamper away, but after a few minutes, several of them tip-toe over to their guests. Turkeys, Shutt says, are naturally more curious than chickens.

These turkeys hatched about 28 days after being laid as eggs. Empire’s contracted farms receive the baby birds when they are just one day old. After they age a few weeks, the farmer will move the birds from this facility to a bigger one for several more weeks before they’re carted off to Empire’s processing plant.

The hen population is tight due to a virus that recently hit breeder turkeys in Virginia and the Midwest. Empire has just enough hens this year, Brown says. Even so, meeting all its Thanksgiving orders will be a photo finish. There’s really no way for Empire to speed up its process, what with the knife checks, shochet shift breaks, and extra inspection, so Empire meets its Thanksgiving demand by simply finding more production hours.

“That’s a challenge anytime you ramp up production by triple the amount. We’re moving a lot more live birds into the plant so we have to work more shifts, longer shifts to get that amount of turkeys processed,” Brown says.

During the holiday season, turkey slaughtering will increase from three days a week to five or six, and employees will move from the chicken line to the turkey line. A shochet will sometimes work six days a week—still resting for Shabbat—instead of four. Instead of 20 trucks hauling away packaged turkeys every day, about 30 will make the trip.

At that point, the hardest work is done. Brown explains his Thanksgiving turkey prep this way: “Just stick it in the oven. You don’t need to doctor it up.”