As technological improvements in the ability to process poultry have increased and as health concerns about the consumption of beef have come to the fore, the poultry industry has increased its share of the market for meat and meat products, especially in the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century.
Chickens were first domesticated in India thousands of years ago. Since then, they have become a mainstay of human consumption. Chickens are by far the most common domesticated fowl in the world. Early in the twenty-first century, there were more than 24 billion chickens in the world–more than any other domesticated or wild bird species.
This 1869 Currier & Ives print of a poultry yard bears little resemblance to modern chicken and egg production methods.
Early American colonists brought chickens with them from Europe to their settlements in the New World. Chickens are an important food source for several reasons. As a source of high-quality protein, chickens–pound for pound–provide a high value compared with their cost of production. Although modern industrial production relies on scientifically determined nutritious feed, chickens can subsist in a variety of conditions and on low-value foods such as scraps. Chickens very quickly grow to an age at which they can be consumed, with the average life span of a commercially grown chicken being only six weeks. Finally, chickens provide an important source of food in the form of eggs. However, early colonial settlers ate far more beef than chicken. In early United States history, chickens and eggs were produced on family farms and were marketed in small towns.
Early colonial settlers domesticated the turkey from the wild fowl they found while colonizing North America. In the United States, turkeys became a valuable food source but were far less popular than chicken until modern food production made it possible to use turkey meat as a substitute for beef, pork, or lamb in a wide variety of processed meats.
On a worldwide basis, waterfowl, including both ducks and geese, have been popular in those countries that engage in wet-rice or paddy rice cultivation. The ponds and reservoirs used for rice irrigation double as a habitat for domesticated ducks and geese. Waterfowl do not currently occupy a prominent place in the American poultry industry, although that may change as the number of Asian immigrants increases. Domesticated pheasants, partridges, quails, grouse, guinea fowl, button quails, and sand grouse constitute an even smaller share of the overall poultry industry, although specialized markets for each of these birds exist in the United States.
During the middle of the nineteenth century, scientific research began into how to make chicken feed more nutritious, produce better chickens and eggs, and improve processing for storage. Urban areas were largely dependent on farms close to the city for eggs and chicken meat. Eggs tended to break if transported great distances, and unrefrigerated chicken meat spoils easily and can cause illness, if not death. The demand for fresh produce, which was shipped similarly to chicken, also limited the amount of chicken that was transported long distances. Although processing and refrigeration of beef, pork, and lamb had progressed substantially, chickens were so small in comparison to these other animals that the same processes were not cost-effective.
During the 1920’s, the first large-scale factories and chicken processing plants were established, but the Great Depression during the 1930’s and World War II during the 1940’s slowed their development. Factory farms confined chickens in cages to produce eggs and raised chickens for their meat in climate-controlled conditions indoors. After World War II, the industry expanded. Modern refrigeration was now available and cost-efficient enough to be used for chicken and other fowl. New synthetic materials could be used for egg cartons to minimize breakage. A mechanical deboning process increased labor productivity substantially.
During the late twentieth century, health concerns about the consumption of large quantities of beef led to an increased interest in poultry, particularly chicken and turkey. Advanced meat-processing techniques made possible the manufacture of a wide variety of processed meats, including hot dogs and sandwich meats, from chicken and turkey meat. Modern packaging and refrigeration enabled the poultry industry to grow dramatically. Advertising also helped the development of the poultry industry.
In the latter part of the twentieth century, consumers began to question the way chickens were raised and processed. Factory farms were criticized as inhumane and unsanitary, and some chicken producers began offering eggs and meat from free-range chickens, birds raised in a more traditional manner.
Bell, Donald D., and William D. Weaver, Jr., eds. Commercial Chicken Meat and Egg Production. 5th ed. Norwell, Mass.: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002. A discussion of the commercial business of managing poultry designed for those in or entering the poultry industry. Damerow, Gail. Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens: Care, Feeding, Facilities. Pownal, Vt.: Storey Books, 1995. This practical guide to raising chickens contains significant information about the commercial aspects of the industry. Perrins, Christopher, ed. Firefly Encyclopedia of Birds. Buffalo, N.Y.: Firefly Books, 2003. This general reference book on birds contains valuable sections on the fowl included in the poultry industry. Sherman, David M. Tending Animals in the Global Village. London: Blackwell, 2002. This book argues in part against the mistreatment of chickens in the poultry industry. Smith, Page, and Charles Daniel. The Chicken Book. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2000. This is a comprehensive examination of the most numerous birds in the world.
U.S. Department of Agriculture
United Food and Commercial Workers