Why Do We Eat So Much Chicken?


In the 50 years since 1970, the world’s population has doubled while the number of chickens we eat has increased nearly 7-fold, from 11 billion to 74 billion.

So, why do we eat so much chicken? According to the National Chicken Council, it started with a mistake in 1923.

Like many rural Americans, Cecile Steele of Ocean View, Delaware kept a small flock of chickens as a source of eggs. The chickens would eventually become food once their egg-laying days were over. However, one day the local chicken hatchery accidently delivered 500 birds, 10 times more than Steele had ordered. Apparently, a clerk had written 500 on the order instead of 50.

To give you a sense of the size of the mistake, in the early 1900’s the largest farms only had ~300 chickens. Clearly, Steele didn’t need that many eggs so she decided to raise the chickens for meat. Less than five months later, she sold them for a huge profit.

Eureka! A new business was born. Steele’s husband quit his job to help with an expansion and, within three years, they had 10,000 chickens. By 1928, hundreds of farmers in the area followed suit, raising chickens for their meat instead of for eggs.

A huge expansion in the supply of chicken meat only makes sense if the demand increased as well. Fortuitously, the Steele’s expansion happened during the Roaring 20’s – a decade of unprecedented U.S. economic growth. As consumers felt wealthier, they wanted to consume more meat – chicken was less expensive and more plentiful than beef. These chicken farms were conveniently located near the rapidly expanding cities of Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York City. In addition, advances in refrigeration and transportation made it feasible to ship chickens to remote areas.

Marketing also played a role in why we eat so much chicken. Chicken benefited from the claim it’s healthier than red meat, even though the science is unclear. The perception that chicken’s white meat is healthier than red meat is so widespread that the pork industry launched a campaign entitled “Pork: The Other White Meat.”

Scientific advances made chicken less expensive to raise than beef or pork. For example, once farmers began fortifying chicken feed with vitamin D, they could raise them year-round indoors, without worrying about rickets. As a result, at a typical U.S. grocery store, the price per pound of chicken is less than half of other meats.

When the Steele’s started their expansion in the 1920’s, chicken accounted for less than 20% of U.S. meat consumption; these days, it’s above 40%. The beef industry’s slogan might be “It’s What’s For Dinner” but the reality is more often chicken.

We eat so much chicken due to a simple mistake made 100 years ago.

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