Chicken wasn’t always as popular as it is today. In fact, in the early 1900s it was about 10 times less popular than pork and beef. Rather than the bland, cheap fare we know now, it was a gourmet food eaten mostly on Sundays—one large roaster split amongst the family. But by 2020, the average American ate almost 100 lbs. of chicken, and over 9 billion broilers were raised just in the United States.
This once niche food has become America’s most popular meat. Furthermore, chicken has experienced nearly a tenfold rise in popularity while per capita beef and pork consumption have essentially stayed the same. Why has chicken exploded so much in popularity? What propelled it to these heights, and what can we learn from its meteoric rise?
These are the questions we’ll be exploring in this series. To do so, we’ll follow the history of the American poultry industry for the last 100 years—from its humble beginnings to the rise of the McNugget.
There are several factors that led to the chicken’s meteoric rise. Notable amongst these was the invention of the modern incubator, which allowed humans to far outstrip the chicken’s natural parenting abilities. Another factor was advancements in modern chicken feed. Precise nutritional formulations, vitamin supplements, and added drugs and antibiotics all increased chickens’ production capabilities and resistance against disease.
While these advancements improved production and slightly increased consumption, people kept farming chickens primarily outdoors and on a small scale. As a result, the industry remained mostly the same as it had always been. Everything would change, however, with one woman in the Delmarva Peninsula, who had a fateful accident that altered the poultry industry forever.