New Bell & Evans hatchery banks on customer demand for humanely raised chicken
Whether Bell & Evans see a return on its new $40 million hatchery in Lebanon County will depend on whether customers buy into an idea: That if you're a chick being raised for meat in the U.S., this is the place you want to hatch.
The company, which supplies chicken products to stores like Whole Foods Market, Wegmans and Chipotle, debuted the Bethel Township hatchery Thursday during a grand opening attended by dozens of community and state leaders, including Gov. Tom Wolf.
The facility will employ 27 people when it opens in August, replacing a hatchery the company currently operates in Mifflin County. It has the capacity to house 1.5 million chicks.
The 160,000-square-foot facility boasts a range of amenities meant to keep the chicks hatched there comfortable and healthy, including Dutch-designed units that gives them immediate access to organic food pellets, fresh air, light and water as soon as they emerge from their eggs.
Other humane features include a transport system that keeps chicks in the same crates - and out of human hands - from the time they hatch until they arrive at another facility, where they will be raised for slaughter. Machines like high-speed chick counters, conveyor belt drops and shell separators, which have drawn criticism from animal rights advocates, are nowhere to be found.
It's a first-of-its-kind facility in the U.S., company officials said Thursday. Wolf even called it "world-changing."
And it wasn't cheap. Company chairman and president Scott Sechler estimated Bell & Evans could have cut its $40 million price tag in half if it had built a more traditional hatchery. The facility's humane transport trailers alone cost $450,000 a piece, he pointed out more than once during Thursday's ceremony.
But he believes demand for the company's current line of humanely raised and organic meat shows today's consumers are willing to pay more than enough to make up for the upfront costs.
Various consumer studies over the years have supported that notion. A recent ASPCA survey, for example, showed that two-thirds of respondents were willing to pay extra for meat and dairy products produced in humane conditions.
The public shaming that comes with appearing to mistreat animals has also loomed over the meat industry in recent years in the form of videos shot by "undercover" animal rights activists. Bell & Evans' Mifflin County facility was the subject of one such viral video in 2013.
The company hopes its new hatchery will make a positive impression on today's animal welfare-conscious consumers.
The hatchery has been in the works since 2015 but didn't break ground until June 2016 because of construction delays and the additional research the company needed to perform to pursue its organic certification, a company spokeswoman said. That certification is still in the works.
Bell & Evans hopes to continue expanding in the midstate over the coming years. It plans to open a new slaughterhouse nearby and eventually expand the hatchery.
The company also operates several other facilities in and around Lebanon County. It employs about 1,600 people overall.