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How Chicken Became Cheap

January 28, 2020

Once upon a time, poultry and eggs were luxury foods.

It costed more to raise chicken as they had to be fed grain. Cows got by on grass and pigs were fed the household food waste or wandered the woods and orchards cleaning up.

There was also a lot of prep work that went into cooking a chicken and the chickens were smaller then, providing little meat to justify the work.

Americans ate very little chicken for the first half of the 20th century, no more than 6 birds per year.  Compare that to today - the average American household eats chicken 3-4 times a week for a total of 30 birds per year per person.

In the early 1900's, chickens were raised in small flocks of 100-300 birds.  Chickens were more of a side hustle for farmers.  After all, chicken mortality was high as chickens fell victim to predation, weather, and lack of forage in the winter.


The Birth of Industrial Chicken

In 1923, Cecelia Steele ordered 50 chicks from a hatchery.  The hatchery made a mistake and sent her 500 chicks.  She decided to keep them and raise them for meat. 

In 1926 Cecelia built a barn to house 10,000 birds and 2 years later she raised nearly 30,000 chickens.  This was the birth of the industrial chicken.  At the time, Cecelia made a profit that would be equal today to $5/lb on her chicken.  That's a killing.

It took another two decades for industrial chicken to truly take off.

As chickens were moved indoors and off of pasture, farmers were pressured to raise more chickens in less space and with fewer costs.  The price of chicken began to come down. 

At this point chicken was still not the housewife's first choice for a meal because they were mostly sold "New York dressed," which meant that
the feathers and blood were removed but the bird still needed evisceration before cooking.  Some marketing was required to get Americans to buy more.

In the 1940's, the USDA ran a contest called "the Chicken of Tomorrow."

Government agencies, scientists, colleges, researchers and volunteers from across the country set out to create: “One bird, chunky enough for the whole family—a chicken with breast meat so thick you can carve it into steaks, with drumsticks that contain a minimum of bone buried in layers of juicy dark meat, all costing less instead of more.”

The winning chicken was 40% heavier than the standard chicken.  At the time, this chicken could reach 3.5 lbs in just 86 days.  But that's nothing compared to the industrial chicken of today which reaches 6 lbs in under 49 days! 

Suddenly there was an oversupply of chicken.  Farmers panicked and produced more chickens instead of less, creating a real need to convince people to eat more chicken.

Meanwhile, disease pressure grew in confined chicken houses and chickens were not thriving on the new soy and corn based feeds. Thomas Jukes set out to remedy the situation.  He experimented with feeding antibiotics to chickens.  What he discovered was that the birds both performed better and gained lots more weight.  And the best part was that the solution of feeding antibiotics was both cheap and yielded more meat.

In 1954 the National Broiler Council (now the National Chicken Council) was formed.

It was given the task of creating a market for all that chicken - recall that previously chicken was a luxury item and the cook (generally the wife) had to do more work to prep it for a meal - she had to eviscerate it and then cut it into parts if she didn't want to cook it whole.  I can assure you that most wives did not want this extra task - hence chicken was not purchased regularly, because, well, the wife was doing most of the food shopping in addition to the cooking.

The prosperity of the 50's and 60's followed the deprivation of the war years and brought about some serious changes to American cooking and eating.  Processed food and baking mixes were introduced and refrigerators became a household item. 

The timing was just right for the glut of chicken to come to hit the processed food scene where it continues to play a major role today.

The 1970s brought genetic and nutritional improvements to the chickens and increased mechanization and automation to the processing - resulting in faster growing even larger chickens that were cheap to defeather and eviscerate.

By this time industrial chicken production had evolved into it's modern state, more or less how we know it today.

By 1992, chicken sales had surpassed sales of beef and pork.

The chart below shows that around 1923 the price for chicken began to drop and didn't increase again until the 1940's, but forever after it has been priced below well beef and pork. (Source of data for the below chart was the US Bureau of Labor)


You may be wondering why I just shared all of that with you?  I'll tell you:

I wanted you to know how the American model of chicken production got where it is and why grocery store chicken is so cheap, especially when
you compare it to pasture raised chicken.  And the fact is that price is really the only point of comparison.That's because there really isn't any comparison when it comes to flavor, texture and especially the nutritional profile of a pastured bird.  The pasture raised chicken wins hands down every time.

This is what Weston A Price Foundation has to say about buying Real Chicken:

"There is a great deal more to the story of chicken. It is a story worth understanding, because chicken, more so than any other meat in
America, encapsulates our national story of food and farming. This includes the change from a decentralized, ecologically oriented system
to a consolidated, industrially minded system, as well as the change from consuming natural food stuffs and forages to relying on isolated
nutrients and pharmaceuticals to stave off the damaging effects of low-quality food and lifestyles.

If there is any meat for which it is worth paying a premium price, it is poultry. Few foods pose as great a danger to our health (both personal and environmental) as industrial chicken, and few foods depend as much on government subsidization and protection. Finally, few foods offer such a powerful opportunity to change the way the American food system works by voting with our forks and dollars for real farmers."

Amie Herrera

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