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Soaring Feed Prices Pit Poultry Producers Against Chicken Catchers


It's man versus machine -- and it looks like man may be winning this round.

Perdue Farms is set to outsource 100 chicken-catching jobs to Unicon, a North Carolina-based subcontractor.

Luis Luna, vice president of corporate communications with Perdue, says the cost of keeping in-house chicken catchers on the payroll doesn't make economic sense.

"Poultry companies are facing near record-high grain costs, and the price of poultry still hasn't picked up because of the economy," Luna says. "We have to stay competitive with the rest of the industry."

Chicken-catching underwent a sea change in the late 1990s, when the first automated chicken catchers were introduced.

Perdue bought its first catching machine in 2000, with the intention of eventually replacing its human chicken catchers altogether.

At the time, Rev. Jim Lewis, a member of the Delmarva Poultry Justice Alliance, insisted, "It's designed to scare the workers and chill the union. It's more fear and intimidation by Big Chicken."

But Jim Dennis, vice president of roaster operations at Perdue, said, "Long term, we'd like to be able to go to total automation. The reason being we want that job easier on our people. It's a very hard job."

Ron Stuckey, general manager of Techno Catch LLC, which manufactures the Chickat chicken-catching machine, tells Minyanville that automation benefits both man and beast.

"With a standard hand-catch crew, you see a lot of back issues, carpal tunnel problems; there's a lot of bending down to the ground to pick up birds," Stuckey says. "A machine-catch crew also only requires about half the people to do the job -- six men instead of 12 -- so you have half the aggravation."

Stuckey says automated chicken-catching reduces "bruising and breaking of the bird's legs and wings quite a bit," so these parts can be sold at the retail level, rather than being sold off for animal feed.

"We did a side-by-side study about five, six years ago with the Mississippi State Poultry Science Department and OK Foods in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, comparing catch machines and catch crews," Stuckey says. "The end result was that a properly operated machine will outperform the hand crew in terms of delivering good, undamaged product to the plant."

Not only is machine capture less stressful for the birds, Stuckey points out that "the machine has no personality. If a chicken tries to bite or peck, the machine could care less. It doesn't get angry toward the end of its shift; it doesn't start meting out retribution toward the animals because it's tired of being there."

In terms of speed, "a good hand crew will come out of the gate pretty quick, but eventually they get tired and the machine will catch them, then pass them -- and do it all more gently," he says.

Stuckey explains that after 10 years of research and development, Techno Catch machines were being used by Tyson Foods (TSN) and Foster Farms, among others. Fast-food outfits like McDonald's (MCD) and KFC (YUM) have long sought to assuage animal rights activists by encouraging its chicken suppliers to mechanically collect a certain percentage of the birds it purchases. However, it seems that automated chicken-catching may not be the bogeyman human chicken catchers believe it to be.

While big names like Pilgrim's Pride (PPC) and Sanderson Farms (SAFM) surely incorporate mechanized equipment into their operations, Dick Lobb, communications director at the National Chicken Council, tells Minyanville that chicken-catching machines have not yet threatened to replace chicken-catching people.

"I don't have an estimate as to what percentage of chickens are caught using machines in this country," Lobb says. "I don't think it's a majority of chicken-catching operations, but it's certainly not unusual. However, this is not the end of the human chicken-catcher industry."

In fact, Stuckey says that far from replacing living, breathing employees, the economics of the poultry business are actually causing the industry to shift back toward manual labor.

"Over the past three years, major chicken operations have edged back toward contract catching," he says.

Even though the $200,000 cost of a mechanical catcher can generally be recouped fairly quickly, short-term thinking abounds in poultry--as it does in most every industry these days.

"A lot of contractors use relatively cheap labor and have basically taken the business back again," Stuckey explains. "There'll be an individual that has access to lots of unskilled, low-priced labor who'll gather up a bunch of crews that can clear out a chicken house with 20,000-25,000 birds in about three hours. There are some good guys out there who are paying workmen's comp and at least the minimum wage, but there are also unscrupulous guys almost using slave labor out there. That's why you've now got humans putting machines out of work, not the other way around."

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