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There's Something About Mary's

A big cluckin' deal and a transparent tour

Alison Blumberg and Hanna Mandelbaum amidst the pastured chickens at Mary's Free Range Chickens
Alison (L) and Hanna (R) taking an immersive approach to their farm visit.

We recently made the announcement that Evermore Pet Food became the first commercially prepared food—for pets or humans—to meet 100% of the criteria set forth by the Better Chicken Commitment (BCC). This is a major milestone in animal welfare initiatives, and we consider it a real feather in our caps. Additionally, we attained Global Animal Partnership (G.A.P.) Step 4 Certification for the pastured, slow-growth, heirloom birds that we source from Mary’s Free Range Chickens. (If you’re not familiar with the BCC or G.A.P., we give an in-depth explanation in a previous blog.) 

In terms of the BCC, we had been meeting 4 out of the 5 criteria for quite some time: room to roam, environmental enrichment, controlled atmosphere stunning prior to slaughter, and third-party auditing to ensure these practices were ongoing. The last piece, using higher welfare breeds (and for our priorities, pastured), was the most difficult to procure—and not for lack of effort over the past decade. A reliable supply simply wasn’t there… anywhere. Arguably, breeding is the most important part of the equation. Modern broiler breeds have been bred to grow as large as possible, particularly in the breast, in the shortest time frame possible. They are likely to experience crippling leg injuries and cardiac problems purely based on their physiology. Most of them won’t take advantage of outdoor access even if it is available. By comparison, higher welfare breeds grow more slowly, have natural proportions, and are healthier, more active birds.

We have been using Mary’s Chicken for nearly a decade now. If you are a Californian, you may recognize the brand from better grocery stores or proudly proclaimed on the menus of farm-to-table restaurants. Nationwide it’s available on meat delivery sites like Crowd Cow (who joined us on our tour) or Butcher Box. While we’ve been using Mary’s free-range organic G.A.P. Step 3 chickens for a long time, it was only in October 2023 that their heirloom program hit the volume levels we needed to transition our chicken recipe fully over to their G.A.P. step 4 birds (we’d already been using their heirloom livers). In our quest to continuously improve, we’ve interacted with a lot of animal welfare organizations and have heard nothing but rave reviews of Mary’s from organizations like the ASPCA®, Compassion in World Farming, and Mercy for Animals, to name a few. In April we took a trip to Sanger, CA, where David Pitman, the third-generation owner of Pitman Farms and the Mary’s Chicken brand, took us on a tour. In the span of a few hours, we witnessed every part of a chicken’s life cycle, from egg to barbecue. It was a surreal experience and one that will stay with us forever. 

Visitor passes to Pitman Farms

Hanna and Alison dressed in white coveralls and hairnets
Hanna (L) and Alison (R)

As with any good Evermore adventure, this one began with putting on very attractive protective gear, full body coveralls. Our first stop was the hatchery, where eggs were rotated in large warm cabinets. We then moved on to where the newly hatched chicks awaited transport to the barns that would house them. Alison and I took turns holding chicks, which was a “bittercute” experience knowing what lay in store. Chirps filled the air as David explained that like any baby, they were crying for the food that they would only receive after being transported to their housing. This is standard practice. Later on we would tour the new hatchery that is currently under construction. It will feature a state-of-the-art system for automatically feeding the chicks as soon as they are born. This will be the second of its kind in the United States.

David explained that when he was touring a similar facility in Europe, it was silent—not a peep. It will cost hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars to implement this. In addition to following the moral imperative to reduce suffering, this is also a smart long-term economic decision. In any hatchery, a certain amount of chicks will die not long after birth. Providing immediate access to nourishment will reduce mortality and result in stronger, healthier chicks.  

A chick awaiting transport to its barn

After the hatchery we moved onto the long barns where the chickens are raised. The sides of the barns were open with adjustable curtains. Giant fans provided cooling and air circulation. Despite the Central Valley midday heat, the inside temperature was surprisingly pleasant, and while there was certainly an unmistakable livestock smell, it was a far cry from what we had anticipated. Yellow feeders and conduits supplying water ran through the length of the barn. Throughout the space there were bundles of eucalyptus branches suspended from the ceiling, as well as perches and barrels to provide enrichment. And there were chickens, more than we could count: chickens crowding around food and water stations, chickens sleeping together in clusters, and chickens entering and exiting through a giant doorway on the side of the barn. 

What we perceived to be a whole lot of chickens in one barn is approximately half of what it could be in a lower-welfare operation. The metric for how many animals are raised in a given space is referred to as stocking density. The animal welfare organizations who came up with the BCC standards, as well as G.A.P. and Certified Humane certifying bodies, are aligned on the standard of a maximum stocking density of 6 lbs of adult bird weight per square foot of barn space. The maximum stocking density for Mary’s heirloom program birds is 5.5 lbs per square foot. By way of comparison, the National Chicken Council recommends between 6.5 - 9 lbs per square foot and many operations exceed this. We know, this sounds like a weird middle school math problem, so we made this infographic for clarification.

One of the first things we noticed about the birds themselves was that many of them had little or no feathers on their necks and some had sparser feather coverage on other parts of their bodies. They looked downright bizarre. We wondered if they had some weird defect, or maybe plucked each other. Thankfully neither was the case. These birds are one of the two breeds raised in the heirloom program, the Cook’s Pioneer. They’re a result of crossbreeding Delaware chickens and Transylvanian Naked Necks, the latter of which elicited giggles and Google. This aesthetically unattractive trait serves a purpose: it helps the birds stay cooler. The other breed was a more typical looking (and prettier) Ranger Gold. Both breeds had longer legs and smaller breasts than the Cornish Cross birds that make up the vast majority of broiler chickens.

From the barn we continued onto the pasture area, where the chickens freely roamed and foraged amidst greenery. It was the heat of the day, so most of them clustered around the shadowed side of the barn and under shade structures. At cooler times they would be more evenly enjoying the space. In a moment of silliness, we decided to try out the shade structures ourselves. There was something deeply satisfying about watching the chickens venture into the grass pecking at insects. The pasture area was in the process of being converted into a regenerative operation. Trees and additional cover crops were scheduled to be planted a few months after our visit. 

Next was the part we had been dreading. The processing plant. For this leg of the tour, we donned blue coats, hairnets, and hardhats. We began at the air chiller, the only part of the plant that we were allowed to photograph. Chilling is an important step in pathogen control that occurs after organs are removed from the carcasses. In the United States, most chicken is water chilled in a bath that contains some form of disinfectant. In Europe air chilling is the norm and results in a tastier bird. We proceeded to the plant floor, where scores of workers stood at stations performing various butchering tasks, removing legs, breasts, wings, etc. Specialized machinery conveyed the carcasses around the plant to and from worker stations. The overall scale was staggering, but still only a tiny fraction of the volume of Tyson or Purdue.

Air Chilling Room

After we toured the butchering area, we stopped by a doorway where we were given a warning. The next area would be much more graphic and those who were particularly sensitive should remain back (readers, this applies to you as well, you might want to skip this paragraph and the next two). We steeled ourselves and walked through the doors. The first room we entered was where the carcasses were eviscerated. This was done exclusively by machinery. It was at turns horrifying and fascinating. At this point we realized that the structure of the tour was designed to desensitize, with each subsequent section getting closer to slaughter.

Nothing could have prepared us for the overpowering stench in the last room that we entered. It was the room right after slaughter where the freshly killed birds that came out on a conveyor belt were mechanically defeathered. Moist separated feathers churned through a large machine, and droplets of what we hoped was just condensation occasionally dripped from above. 

As much as we hate to think of the last moments of the chicken’s lives, there are more and less humane ways to end them. The most common method of killing broiler chickens in the US is live shackle slaughter, where workers shackle struggling birds upside down by their legs, which often break in the process. A conveyor belt drags them through an electrified water bath meant to stun them before an automated blade slits their throats. They continue on to a boiling water bath to loosen their feathers. There is room for error throughout the process as panicked thrashing birds can avoid the water and blade, leaving them to be boiled alive. In the controlled atmosphere stunning (CAS) process that Pitman uses, birds remain in their crates in small groups as they are exposed to increasing levels of gas, usually CO2. This renders the birds fully and irreversibly unconscious before being placed on a slaughter line. CAS is one of the BCC requirements. It is better for the birds, the workers, and the resulting quality of the meat. Many processors are transitioning over to CAS systems, but there is still a very long way to go in terms of industry-wide buy-in, as it is a much more expensive process.

At the end of the tour, we shed our coats, boots, and hardhats before convening in the company break room for lunch. They put together a great spread that included salad, several sides, cornbread, and of course, chicken. To be honest, we both were a little hesitant to dig in, but once we did, damn, that was some delicious chicken. We truly regret not photographing the drumsticks, because they were the longest we have ever seen. After lunch we said our goodbyes and spent another night in Fresno. The next morning, we began the long drive down to the kitchen to throw our annual appreciation breakfast.

Alison (L), David Pitman, and Hanna (R)

We’re sharing this experience with you because we truly believe in full transparency and choose our vendor partners with the same ethos. We are also huge proponents of education. Dogs and cats are carnivores. While dogs (though not cats) can survive on plant-based diets, those foods need to be highly processed and heavily supplemented. They thrive best on meat-based diets, and we take the responsibility of sourcing that meat very seriously. There is no way to get around the staggering fact that 70 billion chickens are farmed and killed for consumption every year globally, 9 billion in the US alone. There is no denying that most of these birds live out their short lives and experience death in atrocious conditions. It is our firm belief that if we are going to be responsible for putting a meat-based product out in the world, it is imperative that we partner with farmers and ranchers who do better and also see the value of continuous improvement. We are extremely grateful to have found such a partner in Mary’s. 

On a final note, while not a Tyson or Purdue, Mary’s is not a small operation, and it took years for them to have the volume of heirloom birds needed to meet the needs of our tiny company—seriously, we’re vanishingly small in the grand scheme of things. Over the years we have reached out to just about every pastured chicken operation in the US, and the reality is that in order for a commercial food manufacturer to provide a high-welfare poultry-based product—especially one that contains hearts—they are not working with the small mom-and-pop farm that exists primarily in our collective optimistic imaginations. Any scaled food company, be it for pets or humans, that would have you believe otherwise is engaging in humane-washing… a topic for another day.


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