FREDERICKSBURG, Penn. – It didn’t take long for premium poultry producer Bell & Evans to earn well-deserved recognition for its trailblazing Organic-Certified Chicken Harvesting Facility in Fredericksburg, PA. The plant began operating in early December 2021 and was recently named the 2022 Food Plant of the Year by Food Engineering for its innovations, automations and high scores in all categories including team member welfare, animal welfare, food safety, product quality, and sustainability.
The new facility processes 100% of Bell & Evans chickens through harvest, 100% Air Chill, cut up, deboning, case packing and shipping. At 411,500 square feet – roughly the size of seven football fields – it was built linear to minimize turns in production which maximize product quality. Many of its innovations are a first in U.S. poultry. The facility also serves as the new headquarters for Bell & Evans with ample office and meeting space including an executive conference room with a jumbotron video wall for education and adjoining kitchen for preparing The Excellent Chicken®.
“I traveled the world and spent my entire career collecting ideas for this new plant,” said Bell & Evans Owner Scott Sechler. “Over the years, we expanded and retrofitted our old plant to meet our needs, and we were ready to build this state-of-the-world facility using every bit of knowledge and experience we have. We spared no expense to achieve our goals, and we’re really proud of this place.”
Bell & Evans is a 5th generation family business that redefines what sustainability means, as both America’s oldest branded chicken company and the most modern in the U.S. and perhaps the world. With 100% state-of-the-art facilities built new within the past decade, Bell & Evans’ definition of sustainability includes and expands beyond protecting our air, soil, water and natural resources. Continuous and significant investments in land, facilities, equipment, processes, partnerships and its team pave a long and prosperous future for Bell & Evans.
This was Bell & Evans’ third successful collaboration with design-build firm Stellar of Jacksonville, Florida. Stellar completed Bell & Evans’ 2017 Hatchery and 2015 award-winning Further Processing Facility. All are organic certified and located in Fredericksburg, PA. Bell & Evans has permits to build a second organic-certified harvesting facility of similar scale on the same 112-acre campus as its newest plant.
Construction of the new harvesting facility began in March 2020 at the onset of COVID-19. The entire facility was designed virtually with Building Information Modeling (BIM) software to allow Bell & Evans’ operations team and vendors to collaborate on the placement of every wall, wire, pipe, equipment piece, nut and bolt to eliminate interferences. That collaboration plus strong vendor partnerships, support from local and state governments, and the continuous involvement of the Bell & Evans team kept the project on schedule and resulted in an unprecedented startup 21 months later.
Following are specifics within several key categories for Bell & Evans at its new facility.
Thoughtful workspaces and team member welfare
- Production areas are bright and spacious, many with white-pigmented concrete walls, windows for natural light and energy-efficient LED lights.
- Adjustable stands at workstations and athletic trainers in production provide ergonomic support.
- Automations, conveyor systems, and in-line processing minimize the needs for fork trucks, heavy lifting or high traffic areas to improve worker safety. The facility has seven palletizing robots, four pick-and-place robots, and is currently testing a prototype Automated Guided Vehicle (AGV) in its warehouse.
- A full-service cafeteria provides healthy, hot meals daily at-cost for team members including soups, sandwiches, salads, grilled daily specials, prepared foods, fresh juices and free coffee.
- Free on-site healthcare is available at the facility Care Center.
Meaningful animal welfare improvements
- Bell & Evans is the first poultry company in the U.S. to use a fully automated unloading system to bring chickens into the facility without fork trucks or human handling. The innovative conveyor system slowly pulls the large module of chickens from the trailer into the facility with little noise or movement.
- The live receiving area is temperature-controlled and has blue lighting that is not visible to the chickens, so it appears dark. These measures to minimize light, sound and movement reduce stress on the birds.
- New, spacious trays provide more headroom and better ventilation than standard models for chickens traveling from the farm to the harvesting facility, on average an hour’s drive or less.
- An upgraded Slow Induction Anesthesia (SIA) process combines oxygen with tempered CO2 gas for a gentle, controlled process of putting chickens to sleep. Windows in SIA allow for full transparency.
- Arrival to harvest, chickens are not handled by humans while conscious, also a team member benefit.
Thorough food safety measures
- Every effort was made to eliminate opportunities for bacteria in production. Hand and boot wash stations are at every entrance into production including live receiving. Most processing equipment is welded and suspended from stainless steel wall plates, minimizing nuts, bolts and leg columns that could otherwise create hard-to-clean pinch points.
- There are no painted, wooden or porous surfaces in production.
- Specialized air dryer and filtration units minimize moisture in the air that could breed bacteria, and rooftop makeup air units use UV light technology to keep out bacteria and viruses.
- The facility is organic certified and chlorine free. Organic-certified cleaning solutions are piped to points in the facility and a monitoring system ensures safe delivery with no human or product contact.
- Chicken byproducts are automatically conveyed to a neighboring building for separation.
Superior product quality
- Bell & Evans is the first poultry company in the U.S. to incorporate vision grading three times during processing including before evisceration to detect internal and exterior defects. Defective birds are automatically moved off the line for human review.
- Upgraded scalders deliver heat through plates instead of steam to maintain a consistent water temperature that is critical for thorough feather removal.
- Bell & Evans pioneered an innovative chicken singe-er to remove pin feathers and reduce common surface bacteria like Salmonella.
- An upgraded 100% Air Chill system quickly cold sears the exterior of the bird to lock in its natural juices and then slowly equilibrates the overall temperature of the bird. Livers, gizzards, hearts and necks are also 100% Air Chilled.
- 100% of boneless product, both white and dark meat, is hand-trimmed then x-rayed with bone detection equipment that was originally designed for the fish industry to identify very small bones.
- The $360 million investment in the new Harvesting Facility and wastewater treatment plant was funded by the first green loan in U.S. poultry for commitments to sustainability.
- The “European-Plus” facility is built to last from exceptional quality materials like precast concrete walls for superior thermal rating and acid brick production floors for longevity even with heavy sanitation.
- 41% of potable site water is reconditioned for use again in first processing. Bell & Evans conserves 400,000 gallons of water per day and is 40% more water efficient than the rest of the poultry industry with its 100% Air Chill processing and water reuse.
- 55% of the new facility’s heat requirements (in BTUs) come from recycled waste heat from its own neighboring rendering facility. 250 gallons of recycled water is heated a minute without additional fuel, greatly reducing daily carbon emissions.
- Cooled interstitial space for utility access above production creates a thermos effect for energy savings in the below refrigerated spaces.
- There are no steam boilers at the new facility. Its direct fired gas heaters achieve 99% efficiency compared 89-90% efficiency of typical steam boilers.
- 100% stainless steel piping in the ammonia system ensures longevity and maximizes team safety.
Bell & Evans chicken is sold nationally at Whole Foods Market and at premium, family-owned retailers across the country including Wegmans Food Markets, Roche Bros. Supermarkets, Central Market (H-E-B), Dierbergs, Lunds & Byerlys, and more. Bell & Evans chicken is also on the menus of America’s finest restaurants.
About Bell & Evans – Bell & Evans is a 5th generation family business and America’s oldest branded chicken company. We are the industry pioneer of all-natural Raised Without Antibiotics chicken and maintain the highest animal welfare standards in poultry. We produce 100% Raised Without Antibiotics chicken and organic-certified chicken with no commodity production.