In the early 1900s, the poultry business was dominated by egg production, with meat being mostly a by-product of that industry. With the rise of Standardbred poultry and the inadvertent birth of industrial chicken farming, this began to change. During World War II, this trend was turbocharged when domestic chicken consumption sharply increased as a result of massive amounts of beef and pork being sent overseas to support the war effort. Seeking to maintain this growth after the war’s end, America’s largest grocery store chain came up with an idea that would mark a crucial turning point in the history of poultry.
While today chicken is the cheapest meat around, it used to be a high end gourmet product that was eaten sparingly. In 1948 industry leaders wanted grow the broiler industry by changing this reality through breeding a chicken that grows faster, fatter, and on less feed than ever before.
And so, “The Chicken of Tomorrow” contest was born. Top breeders throughout the country would compete to breed the best bird in America. The USDA organized the effort and the country’s two largest grocery store chains sponsored the competition.
At the time, Standardbred birds were the most popular and prevalent form of poultry in the United States. While it’s not surprising that most of the entries in the contest were purebreds, such as the New Hampshire and Plymouth Rock, it was incredible news when an F1 hybrid mix of the New Hampshire and Cornish won the competition.
This cross had improved growth, increased breast size, and provided excellent uniformity. So when all was said and done, the contest winner was Charles Vantress’s crosses. Second place went to Henry Saglio’s Arbor Acres.
Today, Vantress’s company operates as Cobb-Vantress and is owned by Tyson Foods (the world’s 2nd largest meat producer), and Arbor Acres has taken on the name Aviagen after going through a series of mergers and acquisitions. Together, both companies provide breeding stock for every one of the more than 9 billion broilers raised in the United States each year, as well as billions more hybrid broilers raised throughout the world. These two companies are little known by the public nor are the troubling practices they undertake to produce their hybrids. They control the poultry industry much more tightly than Monsanto ever did the seed market while being almost complete obscured from public scrutiny
The birds they bred in “The Chicken of Tomorrow” contest were healthy and vibrant birds, similar to many of the stock produced on the Good Shepherd Ranch today. Although this scientific push for a new level of efficiency would not be satisfied with such “small” advancements, it had started an aggressive march towards improved efficiency through hybridization.
In the 1950s, these changes led to Vantress and Arbor Acres developing F3 and F4 hybrids. These progressively efficient, productive hybrids were still relatively healthy and not significantly transformed from purebred stock. This would all change, however, in 1955 when a feed experiment produced an obese line of chickens that would propel poultry breeding into an entirely new realm and make chicken the most popular meat in the United States.
- The Surprising Origin of Chicken as a Dietary Staple
- How the Chicken of Tomorrow Became the Chicken of the World