Most of the chicken we eat is pro­duced in in­dus­trial-scale abat­toirs, but there is a small but grow­ing al­ter­na­tive

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & WINE - MAX BREAR­LEY

Tuck­ing into a roast chook, you may start think­ing about is­sues other than how good it is (or not, as the case may be). Now that we’re all in­creas­ingly con­cerned with is­sues of prove­nance and an­i­mal wel­fare, you may well be in­ter­ested in know­ing where the bird came from and how it lived. But as to how it met its end? Hmmm. The death busi­ness is as con­tentious as it is con­fronting and, most times, we will opt for bliss­ful ig­no­rance over any­thing more spe­cific.

Fact is, chicken con­sump­tion is on the rise (it’s way ahead of beef and pork) and de­mand is be­ing met by vast ver­ti­cally in­te­grated cor­po­ra­tions — such as Ba­iada Poul­try and In­g­hams En­ter­prises — in a macroa­bat­toir sys­tem that’s hard to stom­ach for some. But as consumer de­mand for pas­tured, pre­mium chicken grows, so too does a small but sig­nif­i­cant al­ter­na­tive to the big busi­ness of an­i­mal dis­patch: the mi­cro-abat­toir.

It’s 6.30am at Southamp­ton Home­stead, 240km south­west of Perth. Jeff Pow care­fully lifts chooks from their out­door en­clo­sures into crates to make the 300m jour­ney from a pas­ture rich in chicory, lucerne and rye grass, up the farm track to a rec­tan­gu­lar box no big­ger than a sea con­tainer. One of Aus­tralia’s hand­ful of mi­cro abat­toirs, its ex­is­tence — pre­ceded by an eight­month bu­reau­cratic slalom — has re­sulted in a steady stream of in­ter­ested ob­servers to the prop­erty.

By keep­ing slaugh­ter on-farm and link­ing it to a di­rect sales model, Pow and his wife Michelle McManus are cut­ting out the mid­dle­men. As Pow says, there were “too many fingers in the pie, too many peo­ple be­tween the fam­ily farm and the cus­tomer” in the old sys­tem.

It’s all part of a move­ment to “re­claim the terms of trade”, as he says. To use the mantra of a grow­ing num­ber of small pro­duc­ers, the aim is to be­come price-set­ters, not price-tak­ers.

On the other side of the country, Grant Hilliard of spe­cial­ist re­tailer Feather and Bone out­lines a stark pic­ture in NSW where smaller poul­try pro­duc­ers have three op­tions for slaugh­ter: one in the Syd­ney out­skirts, an­other six hours away on the far south coast and a mi­cro abat­toir on the mid-north coast.

Out­side of those op­tions there’s lit­tle that Hilliard knows of. “There’s sim­ply no other in­dus­try in Aus­tralia that re­stric­tive,” he says. The pic­ture doesn’t much im­prove in other states; one rea­son why on-farm mi­cro and co-op­er­a­tive set ups are gain­ing mo­men­tum.

At Southamp­ton the kill is swift, re­spect­ful and sur­pris­ingly quiet. The birds are elec­tri­cally stunned, up­turned into a cone and given two cuts. There’s a brief kick of the legs and then a slow con­trac­tion of the feet un­til there’s still­ness. The whole process takes 30 sec­onds, over­look­ing the bu­colic scene of a val­ley be­ing re­gen­er­a­tively farmed.

“When peo­ple think of abat­toirs they think of smoke stacks and ef­flu­ent,” says Pow. This scene couldn’t be fur­ther re­moved from that. On the day of our visit, four lo­cals hap­pily work the tools, from the kill to the evis­cer­a­tion, dress­ing and packing.

Pow pro­cesses just 400 birds a week, a mix of Ross (which makes up most of the Aus­tralian chicken mar­ket) and Sommerlad (the her­itage-style cross that’s ruf­fling feath­ers in the food world), a breed he’s in­creas­ingly lean­ing to­wards. That 400 against the tens of thou­sands pro­cessed at the macro end high­lights the di­vide be­tween big and small busi­ness and the dearth of small-scale oper­a­tions. Cen­tral­i­sa­tion, in­creas­ing costs and reg­u­la­tory bur­dens have forced the clo­sure of many smaller abat­toirs dur­ing the past dozen years, leav­ing farm­ers with lit­tle or no choice.

Aus­tralian Food Sovereignty Al­liance pres­i­dent Tammi Jonas, of Jonai Farms near Dayles­ford, talks of the chal­lenges of re­plac­ing in­fras­truc­ture.

“Get­ting back lo­cal op­tions is go­ing to be a chal­lenge as the vi­a­bil­ity of re­gional abat­toirs can be dif­fi­cult to demon­strate,” she says. While Jonas uses larger in­dus­trial abat­toirs for her pigs out of ne­ces­sity, she is frank about the need for al­ter­na­tives, such as small re­gional co-ops or mo­bile mi­cro-abat­toirs, the lat­ter a less cap­i­tal-in­ten­sive op­tion as yet un­tried in Aus­tralia.

Pow and McManus are en­cour­aged by what they see as a grow­ing consumer push for trans­parency in food pro­duc­tion. For some, con­cern cen­tres on is­sues of food miles or an­i­mal wel­fare, oth­ers ques­tion the eco­nomic im­pact of the in­dus­trial sys­tem on farm­ers and their lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties. McManus says cus­tomers are ask­ing more ques­tions at farm­ers mar­kets. “It’s what the com­mu­nity wants,” she says. “Gen­uine, true choice in their buy­ing, not the myth of choice.”

At Southamp­ton the kill is swift, re­spect­ful and sur­pris­ingly quiet. The whole process takes just 30 sec­onds, over­look­ing the bu­colic scene of a val­ley be­ing re­gen­er­a­tively farmed

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