As we are fast approaching America’s 240th birthday, we thought it’d be fun to reflect a little bit on the history of poultry and the poultry industry in our great nation.
Though many people think of the poultry farming industry as mass producing facilities, until about the mid 20th century the industry was centered around family farms or small poultry colonies. Of course, this shift in scale and production methods was directly related to the industrial revolution and the access to brand new technology. Alas, before this, family farms and small poultry colonies were mainly used for egg production, with meat only being an added bonus. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that eggs can last longer than meat and in the days before refrigeration, this was extremely crucial.
Technology… or a lack thereof
Another aspect of poultry farming that was affected by a lack of technology was how much feed you could keep. Not only was it difficult to keep feed fresh, but there just wasn’t that much of it in early America. This kept farm flocks relatively small because no one had enough feed to maintain a larger one. Most hens in farm flocks would just feed themselves via foraging of small slugs and other critters. They would also supplement their foraging with grains and other food scraps left around the farm from other animals or the farm owners.
Despite the 1950s and ‘60s being the real revolution in poultry farming (and civil rights, hippies, etc.), it had become popular enough by the turn of the century to attract the ire of agricultural researchers and scientists. This led to incredible advancements in the nutritional aspects of a chicken’s diet, which in turn led them to live longer and to be hardier. A hardier and longer living flock meant more food, less effort, and more money.
Before the turn of the century, chicken meat was served as a “delicacy” of sorts and was eaten on holidays or other special occasions. These birds were either delivered alive or were processed, plucked, and shipped with ice. The “evisceration” (removing of the innards) of a bird prior to packaging, or the “ready-to-cook” bird, was yet to become popular for another 50 or so years. It was in 1942 that the first factory in Illinois started using “on-line” evisceration, meaning eviscerating the bird before shipping it out. Until then, evisceration was usually done locally at a neighborhood butcher or just at home.
Vitamin D and The Broilers (The Name of my New Band)
Before the “broiler” was commonplace in poultry farming, much of the chicken meat people ate was still from spent hens (hens past their prime.) Since the 1950s, carcasses of birds sold in grocery stores and other places are from broilers, or birds specially raised for their meat. It was in 1952 exactly that broilers surpassed farm chickens as the number one source of poultry meat in america.
One of the largest breakthroughs in poultry farming came in 1922 when scientists discovered vitamin D and how you can artificially provide a photoperiod for hens, thus enabling you to keep them in confinement but continue laying all year long. Before vitamin D was discovered, farmers still knew that hens needed light (the photoperiod) in order to keep their laying cycles regular. But after we began to fully understand the scientific elements of this vitamin, we started to figure out how we could recreate the photoperiod artificially for birds, hence making it possible to raise them year round.
Before the 1950s, there were many different facilities working together to create the product that would end up on dinner tables across the country. With the help of research and technology, farmers started creating fully integrated facilities that could raise, feed, slaughter, process, pack, and ship poultry all under one roof.
Once fully-integrated facilities were a norm, by the 1960s and ‘70s, chickens were being sold under different brand names and even being advertised on TV and in print media. Today almost every single chicken sold in a grocery store is sold under some form of branding, it’s just a normal part of the poultry industry.
By the 1970s and 1980s, even further technological and medical advancements had increased just how prolific the poultry industry could be. To go with this, consumers were asking for even further chopped up and processed birds to be sold in grocery stores. With this, these facilities became even bigger. The availability of chicken in grocery stores around the country led the food to becoming so much more than a delicacy, but a standard form of food and reliable form or protein and nutrition.
The mass-production of chicken has required many different quality control agencies and “bureaus” to step in and monitor the production of these chickens. Modern broiler chickens are much meatier than they used to be and that’s no coincidence. Decades of breeding have led farmers to becoming quite good at their craft. Unfortunately, for every 5 quality raised chickens there’s one poorly raised one. It’s this reality that has led so many people in recent years to create their own farms or buy from free-range farms to ensure their chickens are raised naturally and humanely. We are in the midst of a resurgence of heritage chicken breeds and small sustainable farms. As the demand for responsibly raised poultry meat and eggs, the number of backyard farmers and smaller scale farms is on the rise. Hopefully, this isn’t a trend, and we continue to see the scales tip toward more environmentally friendly food production practices.
Like most industries in America, the poultry industry is an ever-changing one. So before you throw those locally produced chicken legs and brats on the grill this 4th, take a step back and think of the great American farmers who have come before you and made this holiday one we can enjoy with great people AND great food!
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