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Organic chicken boom spurs Whole Foods supplier to triple output

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Americans can't seem to get enough organic chicken, driving the US's oldest chicken brand to break ground on a new plant in the Northeast.

[CHICAGO]

Americans can't seem to get enough organic chicken, driving the US's oldest chicken brand to break ground on a new plant in the Northeast.

Bell & Evans, a supplier to Whole Foods Market Inc, is set to triple its total production by constructing a new Pennsylvania processing facility, with an eye to increasing its organic output along with more flavourful birds. The 560,000-square-foot plant is scheduled to open in early 2020 with capacity to process 2.6 million birds a week, according to a statement Monday.

The organic chicken business has been booming. American farm sales climbed 78 per cent last year to US$750 million, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data. That makes chicken the third-largest organic agricultural commodity, trailing milk and eggs, and several of the largest U.S. poultry companies have launched organic lines.

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In addition to Bell & Evans' plans to grow its organic chicken line, which is currently responsible for about 30 per cent of production, the company is also transitioning all its birds to a slower-growing breed of chickens next year in a bid to improve flavor and animal welfare.

"We've grown by quality and word of mouth and being associated with the right type of retailers," owner Scott Sechler said by telephone.

The plant will be the first new chicken facility in the northeastern US in decades, according to Bell & Evans. It is about double the size of a new Tennessee chicken facility announced last week by Tyson Foods Inc, the largest US meat company.

Bell & Evans was founded in 1894, according to its website. The company supplies grocers including Whole Foods and Wegmans Food Market Inc. and other "upscale" retailers and butchers. Most of the new growth is intended to serve existing customers, Mr Sechler said. It currently produces whole birds and prepared products like chicken nuggets, frankfurters and patties.

The company plans to source its organic feed-grain domestically and is working to organise corn and soybean contracts, Mr Sechler said. Bell & Evans opened an organic-certified chicken hatchery earlier this year.

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