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  • Writer's pictureTarun Shridhar

Ascent of Chicken, the Ruler of the Roost

“I want there to be no peasant in my kingdom so poor that he cannot have a chicken in his pot every Sunday” - Henry IV, King of England in the 14th century.

Whoever coined the phrase “chicken out” associating cowardice with chicken was surely ignorant of the tenacity and perseverance of this docile bird. In less than a century, it has emerged, from a luxury available to a few, as the most preferred meat in the diets of human beings in each and every nook and corner of the world.

“How chicken became the rich world’s most popular meat” is an interesting article published in The Economist about three years back. The inference it draws is that “two aspects, the healthy and the wealthy, have created a boon for consumers eager to scoff large amounts of lean protein.” The article poses a question “How did chicken become a quintessential part of Western cuisine?”, and thereafter finds its answer in these two aspects of health and wealth. During the 1980s the world awoke to heart ailments leading the doctors to warn that eating too much saturated fat, found in red meat, could increase the risk of heart disease. “And now, though doctors worry less about saturated fat, new evidence suggests that eating red meat can lead to colon cancer. In contrast, chicken’s reputation as a clean meat has remained unscathed.”

Another reason for the increasing popularity of chicken is its affordability; not only did it become cheap, its prices have been more competitive compared to other meats. Poultry producers too have been much more successful than producers of other meats at cutting costs. “In 1960 a pound of chicken cost half as much as a pound of beef. This ratio has now fallen to one-third”, the article reveals in the American context. It is not just the fussy Western eaters who increasingly favour chicken. Rising incomes mean that demand for meat is growing even faster in developing countries. As a result, chickens are now the world’s most widely traded meat.

“Let there be a chicken in every pot” was the slogan of the Republican Party in the1928 US Presidential election. And till about fifty years ago, it was rare for chicken to find a place at our dinner table; it used to be a special occasion meal. However, in under five decades, chicken has gone from being the most expensive meat to the most affordable. Credit must go to science and technology also that transformed chicken into the world’s most popular meat.

Since the 1940s research and development have been at the forefront of the poultry sector, focusing primarily upon breed improvement leading to production of bigger and weightier birds. A study by Martin Zuidhof from the University of Alberta found that the average broiler chicken, raised for meat, weighed 4.2kg at 56 days of age in 2005, up from just 0.9kg in 1957.

The introduction of antibiotics meant that farmers no longer need to spend much time worrying about their chickens’ health and welfare. A lot had to change for chicken to become such a production powerhouse. Up until the mid-1900s, the majority of chickens were raised in small flocks (one to a hundred birds) on small family farms. When old laying hens retired, they became “stewing hens.” Excess young males were sold as “spring chickens.” With very little breast meat, neither of these resembled the chickens we consume today. The stewing hens were tough and required long, slow cooking to make them palatable. The spring chickens, although easier to prepare, produced a paltry quantity of meat. Above all, both were extremely expensive.

On the family farm, chickens provided, at best, a little bit of additional income for the farmer, or perhaps his wife who tended to them. Poultry was certainly never considered by them as an enterprise of any economic significance. In part, this was because mortality in chickens was high. Reduced winter forage, predation and other problems made for a tough life, especially in colder climates. One of the main problems was nutrition. Chickens develop health and disease issues during dark, cold days with scarce food. Heated coops and nutritionally fortified feed were yet to make an appearance.

In fact, it was the 1920s that ushered in a sea change for the chicken. Scientists who were just beginning to unravel the world of nutrition discovered vitamins A and D. Cod liver oil was promoted as a mainstay of the chicken’s supplemental diet, and mortality rates suddenly dropped. The incubator, invented a few decades before, also began facilitating the creation of hatcheries. Incubators could (and did) supply larger and larger numbers of chicks, displacing the erratic and unpredictable on-farm replacement flock approach. The stage was set to transform chicken production from a small-scale side enterprise into something more economically substantial, and that is just what Wilmer Cecile Steele of Delaware did.

Steele holds a dubious but important place in poultry history for creating commercial poultry production. In 1923, she ordered fifty chicks, but the company sent five hundred by accident! She decided to keep them all, raising them specifically as meat birds. Things went so well that year and in subsequent years that by 1926, Steele had built a barn to house ten thousand birds. Two years later, she raised almost thirty thousand. Industrial chicken was born, and it quickly boomed. A decade later, Delaware alone produced seven million broilers per year.

The changes that Steele and others made to chickens’ housing conditions required significant changes to almost everything about a chicken’s diet and life. No longer able to forage, chickens became dependent on artificial food. The timing was right because soy was beginning to provide a standardised, cheap, high-protein feed perfect for confined chickens. Thus, soy became, along with corn, the backbone of the burgeoning confined poultry production model. The meteoric rise of the industry that followed was matched by its own chickens that started growing to a size that, in comparison to what it had been, could be called gargantuan.

If vitamins, soy for animal feed and similar advances set the stage for raising chickens in confinement, antibiotics stole the show. Moving animals off pasture and into densely populated barns created disease pressure. Artificial nutrition and supplementation could offset only a portion of this extra stress. In addition, as production increased, prices dropped, which put immense pressure on farmers to raise more with less—less space, fewer costs, less care. Questions arose about how far the industrial system could be pushed and how much chicken it could produce.

A scientist named Thomas Jukes discovered the solution to these problems: antibiotics. Working at a research facility for Lederle in the 1940s, Jukes was fixated on figuring out what would allow chickens to flourish in confinement. Jukes discovered that when he added antibiotics to the feed of the chickens in his experiments, they not only performed better than the other groups, but they specifically gained more weight. The birds given the greatest amount of antibiotics gained the most weight. The best part was that this strategy was cheap. In this way, antibiotics became the backbone and constant companion of modern meat production.

Chickens are the most ubiquitous of all livestock species, and are to be found more or less everywhere inhabited by people. Poultry meat and eggs are among the animal-source foods most widely eaten at global level, across greatly diverse cultures, traditions and religions. Consumption of poultry meat and eggs, and of animal-source foods in general, has increased rapidly in past decades. Chicken continues to dominate meat consumption as besides being low in fat and generally affordable, it faces few religious and cultural barriers. According to the FAOs projections, the market for poultry meat is projected to increase regardless of region or income level, with per capita growth higher in developing countries than in the developed ones.

Chimaek, fried chicken with beer, is the pride of Korea. In Japan you get karaage, nuggets of chicken marinated in soy sauce and garlic before being fried in a coating of wheat flour. A citrus-based marinade defines Guatemalan fried chicken. America’s southern fried chicken may be delicious but it is not, objectively, the best as Americans, indifferent as they are to the rest of the world, believe. Lord, forgive them for they may not have had the privilege of savouring Tandoori Chicken, Butter Chicken, Chicken Tikka, Chicken Chettinad et. al. And who would tell them that it is Chicken Tikka Masala that wears the crown of the global chicken dish, quite deservedly so.

Chicken is the winner for dinner.


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