Bulletin E2898
Safe Home Processing of Poultry

April 2, 2012 - S.K. Varghese


4-H youths raise poultry every year as projects for county or state fair exhibits. After the fair, some birds may be processed either for immediate consumption or for future use. Future Farmers of America (FFA) youth in some states annually raise around a hundred broilers per person through their local schools as a school project. In some states they may also participate every year in state broiler contests. After the contest, the remaining birds are processed at small processing plants or at home. Some of these birds may be sold in the community.

Small flock poultry owners raise broiler chickens either for home consumption or for local sale in their communitites. Dr. Varghese assists these groups with educational programs in poultry nutrition and management, but food safety issues were not given much priority in the past.

Some people prefer to cook and eat freshly processed poultry rather than frozen, if it is readily available, because freshly processed poultry normally tastes better if it is handled right. Commercially processed poultry from supermarkets is readily available at a reasonable price. These commercial birds are process and transported under very stringent sanitary conditions applying best quality management practices and giving food safety issues top consideration at every step of the way. Commercial poultry operations and processing plants in the United States have implemented HACCP (Hazard Analysis of Critical Control Points) in recent years. Home processing of poultry is permissible for consumption and for sale on a small scale in most states, provided that it is done with utmost care and vigilance.


When you may raise poultry in the backyard depends on local township ordinanaces. Under federal regulations (Federal Register, May 16, 1972), you may home process (kill and dress) up to 1,000 chickens, ducks, or geese, or 250 turkeys for sale and be exempt from federal inspection. This rule has been modified and, as it appears now, as many as 1,000 birds (irrespective of the species) can be processed under this regulation (Code of Federal Regulations. Title 9, Part 381.1:2001). If distribution is through channels such as grocery stores, labeling should list the producer’s name and address and the work “exempted”. Such processed poultry would, of course, be subject to seizure and removal from sale if it were found to be contaminated or otherwise unfit for human consumption. Uninspected poultry is not allowed to move in interstate commerce. The food division of some state departments of agriculture inspects small processing plants for their sanitary conditions. Such operations need to obtain a license from the state labeling requirements. Contact your local authorities for further information.

Few small processing plants specializing in poultry are doing business in the United States. It may not be practical or economical for the small poultry producer to take a handful of chickens or other poultry to a processing plant. Transportation to the processing plant could cause stress on the individual birds, and harmful pathogens may contaminate the carcasses. Precautionary measures would have to be taken during the transportation of birds to the processing plant and also during transportation of the carcasses back home. Thus, home processing of poultry can be justified, provided proper procedures are followed.

Public Health Problem

Food-borne illness is a significant public health problem in the United States. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that food-borne microbial pathogens may cause up to 80 million cases of illness. Of these, some 325,000 result in people being hospitalized, and 5,000 deaths occur each year (CDC, 1999 report). Several food safety-related recalls of hamburger meat and turkey products have occurred in the United States since 1998. Food safety factors in poultry need to be taken very seriously by everyone at every step from live bird to cooked food.

Harmful bacteria that cause food-borne illnesses:

Campylobacter jejuni

Clostridium botulinum

Clostridium perfringes

Escherichia coli 0157:H7 (and other E. coli types)

Listeria monocytogenes

Salmonella (more than 300 types)


Staphylococcus aureus

Of the above, Campylobacter jejuni, Clostridium, Listeria monocytogenes and Salmonella are common bacteria that affect poultry and poultry products. They are often found in dirt, dust and manure. Eggs are affected mostly by Salmonella enteritidis, which may be transmitted into the eggs through the hen.

Bacteria are microorganisms that are too small to be detected by the naked eye. They are everywhere, especially in the poultry house and on the birds, and frequently in the manure. They are also present in the digestive tract (the gut) of poultry.

Regardless of where Campylobacter comes from, it is present in most flocks at the end of grow-out. There is an apparent seasonal effect—more Campylobacter is isolated in poultry and poultry products in warmer months than in colder months (Jacob-Restima et al., 1994; Stern, 1995; Willis and Murray, 1997). Feed withdrawal, transport and holding prior to slaughter cause an increase in the incidence of Campylobacter (Byrd et al., 1998) on the carcass. Cross-contamination is the process by which bacteria are transferred from a contaminated source to a non-contaminated source. It can occur during processing, storage and after cooking. Care needs to be taken during these steps to prevent such problems.

The Presidential Commission on Food Safety developed an educational tool called Fight BAC. The message of this campaign is to fight bacteria every possible way. Fight BAC materials are available from the Partnership for Food Safety Education Web site: < www.fightbac.org>.

Poultry meat can be cooked in many ways and is very nutritious, but it needs to be wholesome to be consumed safely. Senior citizens, young children and people with weakened immune systems are most susceptible to problems from food-borne bacteria.

Cooking food to the proper temperature kills harmful bacteria. Cook thoroughly. Ground chicken and turkey should be cooked until the internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F. Whole chickens, ducks, and turkeys (unstuffed) should be cooked until the internal temperature reaches 180 degrees F. Breast and dark meat should be cooked to 170 degrees F and 180 degrees F, respectively. Stuffing should always be cooked separately to 165 degrees F. (A cooking chart is given in the “Fight BAC” material.)



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